Bishop Kenneth’s letter on the 8th Amendment

A Letter to the Diocese from the Bishop, Rt Revd. Kenneth Kearon, Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe.

The Church of Ireland seldom takes an “official” line on an issue, especially on ethical issues where personal responsibility and conscience are paramount. Instead the church offers guidance and help to those making decisions while respecting the rights of all to differ from that advice and to decide freely according to their own conscience. It was in that spirit that the Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin issued their joint statement on the 8th amendment some weeks ago, and it is in that same spirit that I address that same issue now. In this letter I am simply responding to a number of questions I have received recently, and the opinions below are simply my own.

Traditionally, the Church of Ireland has been opposed to abortion, but also accepts that some exceptions have to be made, especially where the life of the mother is at serious risk, or where it is clear the future baby won’t survive. Some would also include situations of conception after rape or incest.

For that reason, the Church of Ireland was generally opposed to the introduction of the 8th amendment to the Constitution in 1983, and so today it is entirely consistent to support the removal of that same amendment, as is proposed in the upcoming referendum.

I have greater concerns about the draft legislation which has been published and will be proposed should the referendum succeed – it will of course be open to amendment as it passes through the Oireachtas. This proposes termination on any grounds up to 12 weeks, and appears to be based on the pragmatic argument that this is already available through the internet, and so by making it legal it opens the possibility of medical supervision and assistance. That is hardly an ethical argument.

Behind much of this is the question as to when life begins. The Bible certainly speaks of life in the womb before birth (Ps 139. 13-14, Luke 1.41-45, Psalm 22. 9-10, and many other references), but none of these seek to identify the moment when life begins, and do not say that life begins at conception. When we look to the traditional teachers of the church, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas for example, we find speculation about the beginning of life, often equating it with ensoulment (when the soul enters the body) or with the time when the mother first “feels life” or movement, all of which are stages long after conception has taken place. Modern biology which recognises that very many conceptions do not continue on through the various stages of development to become births but are “lost”, does appear to support this line of thinking also.

So I would encourage legislators to adopt a more ethical instead of a pragmatic approach to termination of pregnancy, and I look for legislation which permits termination when the life (not just the health) of the mother is at risk, or when the future baby will not survive ( not on grounds of disability), or when conception has occurred after violence or abuse, when having to carry a baby in addition to the violence surrounding conception can be genuinely described as destructive of a woman’s life. Hopefully any such cases would be rare, but provision does need to be made for them.

Legislators are in a difficult position at this time, and most are courageously seeking to approach this issue in a responsible manner. They deserve our prayers and our support at this time. So far the debate has been serious and respectful, and let’s all try to keep it that way.

These are important and difficult issues on which each of us has to make up our own minds in conscience. Do please consider these issues seriously and prayerfully in the coming weeks.

12 April 2018.