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National Archives

1982: Irish Council of Churches opposed anti-abortion amendment

The group said the change to the constitution was legally unnecessary and socially unfair – as it placed the views of the Roman Catholic church above those of other denominations in Ireland.

THE IRISH COUNCIL of Churches in 1982 opposed the pro-life amendment to the constitution on the basis that it was legally unnecessary and socially unfair, Government documents released for the first time in 30 years reveal.

The group, which represented several Protestant churches in Ireland, agreed to oppose the introduction of a constitutional ban on abortion – and outlined a number of reasons for doing so.

The Irish Council of Churches was composed of the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Moravian Church in Ireland, and the Salvation Army.

In a statement, the Council said that all of its members affirmed the sanctity of human life and were opposed to “indiscriminate abortion”, pointing to recent comments by both the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland that abortion should only be contemplated in “exceptional circumstances”.

The three main Protestant churches along with the Quakers agreed that “the State’s regulation of abortion and other morals in the Republic should be a matter for legislation by the Oireachtas and not for definition by the constitution”.

Furthermore, the churches said a country’s constitution “declared very general attitudes and aspirations of the community”, and was not intended to be used as a precise legal instrument for “regulating public morals”. They also pointed out the legal difficulties in drafting an actual form of words and raised fears that using the constitution to such an end could rule out exceptional cases or lead to a restriction of contraceptives.

Dividing the community

The Council voiced fears that the amendment would divide the community. It pointed out that the ‘exceptional cases’ in which the termination of a pregnancy was not considered an abortion by Roman Catholic moral teaching included ectopic pregnancy or cancer of the uterus. If such factors were incorporated into the proposed amendment, they argued, it would therefore enshrine the religious teaching of one denomination into the country’s constitution.

If the ‘exceptions’ allowed by Roman Catholic moral teachings are to be considered for incorporation into a constitutional amendment then why wouldn’t the exceptional situations in which many Protestant churches have regarded abortion as possibly permissible or the lesser of two evils be also considered for inclusion, viz:

If there is a grave risk to the life of the mother;

Cases of rape or incest;

Gross abnormality detected in the foetus?

The ICC continued: “The proposed amendment could divide the community and give a confessional appearance to the State. It could appear to brush aside other Church traditions and seem to make their contribution to the community irrelevant”.

The number of women having abortions

The ICC insisted the proposed amendment would not reduce the number of women seeking abortions in the UK – and that a “genuine moral stance” on abortion instead demanded active measures to discover and minimise the complex causes leading to abortion, as well as the State providing adequate care for women experiencing unwanted pregnancies and the infants when they are born.

The Moravian Church said the majority of its members would be “against a policy of ‘abortion on demand’” but still felt there were specific cases -including infant deformation, rape, or a threat to the life of the mother – when the woman “should have the right to make the final decision”.

A statement by the Religious Society of Friends concluded: “We consider that the money which would have to be spent on the necessary referendum would be far better spent in welfare services in support of the underprivileged, including women with unwanted pregnancies”.

See National Archives, ref number 2012/90/881

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