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The truly compassionate choice is never easy, bishops tell Citizens’ Assembly

By Cian Molloy - 06 March, 2017

It is strange that in a culture that values individual rights, the most fundamental personal right of all – the right to life – is increasingly being questioned and denied.

In their presentation to the Citizens’ Assembly yesterday (Sunday 5 March), the Catholic bishops argued in favour of keeping the constitutional protection of unborn life from three different perspectives: individual rights; protection of the defenceless; and the limits of personal freedom.

The presentation, which was given on behalf of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference by Kate Liffey, Ireland’s National Director of Catechetics, also sought to clear up misconceptions about Catholic teaching on the right to life of the unborn.

Firstly, Ms Liffey said: “Our modern culture places a high value on individual rights. That is good. But these are not exclusive. As a progressive and compassionate society we need to remember always the rights of ‘others’. While interrelated, the child is not an extension of the mother. The child in the womb is another human being, another person who possesses his or her own inalienable rights. It is strange that in a culture that values individual rights, the most fundamental personal right of all – the right to life – is increasingly being questioned and denied by some in the case of the baby in the womb.

“While we are all at different points on our life journey, we all have an innate sense of responsibility towards each other, and this includes the vulnerable child in the womb. This human ‘equality’ is at the heart of the positive goal of Article 40.3.3.”

Offering a second perspective for consideration by the Assembly, which met at the Grand Hotel in Malahide, Ms Liffey said: “How a society responds to the weakest and most defenceless is an indication of that society’s level of humanity. We can think here of the situation of an unborn child with a life-limiting condition. We know from our own families and from our pastoral experience in parishes just how distressing it is for a mother and father to discover that the baby in her womb is seriously ill and, very possibly, may not live. The situation is comparable to that of a born child or adult at an advanced stage of terminal illness.

“One of the particular challenges facing parents of unborn children with life-limiting conditions is the lack of coordinated support for them. We believe a lot more needs to be done to provide appropriate perinatal hospice services, which offer warmth, tenderness, nutrition and hydration and, in that way, support parents in caring for their sick children until natural death. This is a practical suggestion to support parents and their baby in their time of most distress and this, rather than the repeal of Article 40.3.3, should be the focus and determination of government policy.”

She continued: “A third perspective. To make any condition or situation of one human being, even if that situation is difficult and sad, such a priority that it would harm another human being is an essential loss of our own humanity. Some people argue that the right to life of the unborn should be a matter of personal choice. While we acknowledge the profound pain and anguish of difficult and challenging situations, we cannot support a suggestion that one person can decide when it is time for another person to die. None of us can ever say, ‘I’m unlimited, my freedom is unlimited, I can do away with what seems to limit my freedom’. That is a temptation in our world today. However, the truly compassionate choice is never easy and involves sacrifice.”

Turning her attention to misconceptions regarding Church teaching, Ms Liffey said: “The Catholic Church has never taught that the life of a child in the womb should be preferred to that of a mother. By virtue of their common humanity a mother and her unborn baby have an equal right to life.

“Where a seriously ill pregnant woman needs medical treatment which may, as a secondary effect, put the life of her baby at risk, such treatments are always ethically permissible provided every effort has been made to save the life of both the mother and her baby. Abortion, by contrast, is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby and is gravely immoral in all circumstances. Abortion is not a medical treatment.”

She reminded the Assembly that in Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, it is not the State ‘granting’ the right to life to the unborn. “Rather the State is acknowledging that right as a fundamental right, which belongs to the unborn by virtue of his or her being a person,” she said.

Similarly, Ms Liffey said: “Article 40.3.3 does not guarantee, in all circumstances, to be able to defend and vindicate the right to life of the unborn, any more than it can in the case of people who are born and living in any of our villages, towns and cities. The State does, however, guarantee to respect the right to life of the unborn in its laws, just as it does in the case of other persons. The right to life is unique, of course, because, in the absence of that right, no other civil or natural right can be exercised, either now or in the future.

“Article 40.3.3 reflects the appropriate balance of rights of both the mother and baby in the womb.”

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