News Roundup

Government likely to back abortion committee’s radical recommendations

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has indicated that the Government will accept the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment. This would pave the way for a referendum to entirely repeal the Eighth amendment to the Constitution recognising the right to life of the unborn child, and enable legislation to be prepared to allow for abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy, and thereafter up to birth where there is a risk to the ‘mental or physical health’ of the mother. This is more radical than the UK law under which one pregnancy in every five ends in abortion each year. At the opening of a special meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Monday, Mr Varadkar said the proposals to repeal the Eighth Amendment and allow for abortions up to 12 weeks were a “strong option” for the Government.

According to the Irish Times, however, by the conclusion of the five-hour meeting, the Taoiseach said he believed there was a majority opinion that the Government should not stray too far from the committee’s recommendations. Any departure from the proposals, he said, would require both a very good reason and also the support of the Independent members of the Government.

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Former Minister Michael Noonan warns Govt about Supreme Court appeal of unborn rights

Former Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has issued a warning about the effect of an upcoming Supreme Court case on unborn rights could have on the pro-life debate. Addressing a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party yesterday, he advised his colleagues to be conscious of the case where the Supreme Court is to hear an appeal of a High Court ruling which found the unborn had rights beyond those expressed in the Eighth Amendment. Mr Noonan did not express an opinion on the committee’s recommendations but said the Government needed to be mindful of the legal realities.

The case is due to be heard in late February, but it is not clear whether a ruling might be handed down by the time any potential referendum is held. The outcome of the case could put a wrench in the Government’s strategy as they are planning to publish abortion legislation in tandem with any legislation to hold an abortion referendum. If the Government decide for straight repeal of the Eighth amendment, they will not only be opening the way for widespread abortion, they would also be deleting the constitutional right to life of the unborn. However, any legislation that has been mooted so far has only addressed possible abortion scenarios, and not the rights of the unborn child. After the legislation is published, the Supreme Court could subsequently rule that the unborn child has no rights beyond the right to life. Overnight then, the referendum to repeal the Eighth amendment would become a referendum to remove the last remaining vestige of recognition of the rights of the unborn.

At the meeting yesterday, the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, also expressed concern about the rights of the unborn. Mr Coveney told the parliamentary party he accepted there was a need for some change but wanted protection for the unborn and the mother.

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EU Commissioner speaks out in favour of abortion ahead of referendum

The EU Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has taken a strong position in favour of abortion ahead of the planned Irish referendum on the issue.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Ms Vestager said: “It is never a thing that comes easy, but it gives you a right to your own body as a woman, to which you are otherwise deprived”. She added that it was “very important people can make their own decision within the family, when [they] want to have children”. In her native Denmark, abortion is available for any reason up to 12 weeks and thereafter for certain reasons and is paid for by the Government. “We think about it as a way to make sure that you are having children when you want to have children, and not when they come in a way when you haven’t chosen it yourself,” she said. Denying that the law harms the social fabric of the country, she said: “We find that the social fabric is made by taking responsibility for the choices you make; not denying people the right to free abortion, but affording them it with caution and the seriousness that people put into that decision”.

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Religious evangelisation severely circumscribed in Bolivia

A new Penal Code in Bolivia bans religious evangelisation aimed at recruiting new members of faith communities. Religious organisations are classed with terrorist groups in the new law with both threatened with jail time of five to 12 years for attempting to recruit new members.

Specifically, Article 88.11 reads: “Whoever recruits, transports, deprives of freedom or hosts people with the aim of recruiting them to take part in armed conflicts or religious or worship organisations will be penalised 5 to 12 years of imprisonment”. Christian groups in Bolivia fear that a rigorous application of the Penal Code could ban preaching in the streets or even the act of inviting someone to a Christian event.

Several pastors gathered outside the Bolivian national parliament in La Paz to pray for religious freedom.  “Will they denounce us if we bring a group of people to a Christian camp? Will I no longer be able to preach the Gospel on the streets?”, pastor Miguel Machaca Monroy, President of the coalition of evangelical churches in the capital city asked.

The National Association of Evangelicals in Bolivia also criticised the new Penal Code. “It is deplorable that Bolivia becomes the first Latin American country to persecute the rights of freedom of conscience and of religion, which are protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the declaration of San José de Costa Rica, and our Constitution”.

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Supreme Court rush to hear unborn rights case before abortion referendum

The Supreme Court has agreed to urgently hear the State’s appeal against a High Court finding that the unborn is a “child” with a significant set of rights beyond the right to life recognised by the pro-life amendment. Lawyers for the State told the Chief Justice on Thursday morning they wanted an “extremely early” hearing date because the prospect of an abortion referendum in late May had been raised. Mary O’Toole SC said her side is very anxious the appeal is heard and decided as soon as possible.

The Chief Justice, Mr Justice Frank Clarke, said the courts would likewise be anxious to not have the appeal heard in the middle of the  referendum campaign on the Eighth amendment. Because of this, the court would hear the case at the earliest possible date, probably around February 22nd or 23rd.

The Chief Justice was appointed to his position only last summer and this would be the first major case involving the unborn that he would preside over as the Chief Justice. At the time of his elevation, the Irish Times correspondent, Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, described him as a “socially liberal” judge with a radical edge who may be willing to take the Court into a new era of judicial activism.

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Surprise in Canada as far more doctors than expected refuse to commit euthanasia

A recent study has shown that 18 months after a new law was enacted in Quebec, conscientious objections by doctors against providing euthanasia were far more frequent than anticipated. Prior to the law, only 28% said they would never participate, but afterwards, 77% of the physicians refused to actively participate, all of them using the conscientious objection clause, even though the study claimed the majority (72%) were in favor of the law with only 13% of the doctors neutral or ambivalent.

The most common reason given for refusal was “too much of an emotional burden to bear, followed by a perception of lack of clinical expertise, and a fear of being stigmatised by peers or by people in general for participating.” Other reasons included not adding to an “already heavy clinical burden”,  being “a very time-consuming process” and “medical legal concerns”. According to Nancy Valko, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Pro Life Nurses, “the seemingly obvious takeaway from these surprising refusals is that participating in the killing of patients is much harder in reality than approving gauzy claims of just relieving suffering”.

A further study of the reasons doctors were objecting concluded that legal “conscientious objection” is mostly being used for “reasons other than moral or religious grounds” and therefore do not meet the classic definition of conscientious objection. The also expressed concern of a “looming crisis” of delays in access to euthanasia “services”. The authors suggested that conscientious rights of physicians might have to be circumscribed or curtailed. Ms Valko commented: “It is ironic how deliberate death decisions defended on the basis of ‘choice’ can easily become ‘no choice’ for those health care professionals dedicated to really caring for patients instead of killing them”.

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Divorced couple in custody dispute over frozen embryos

The Colorado Supreme Court is hearing a custody dispute over which spouse of a divorcing couple may gain custody of their frozen embryos. One parent is claiming the embryos so he can destroy them, the other, so she can bring one or more of them to birth. Unusually, they are both using arguments grounded in the US Constitution so the case may yet go to the US Supreme Court, creating a precedent that involves both the personhood of embryos and a test of Roe v Wade.

Harvard law professor Glenn Cohen said the central issue focuses on how to balance one person’s constitutional right to procreate with another’s countervailing constitutional right to not procreate. The question parallels similar arguments used in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 abortion decision in Roe v. Wade. If women have the right to not be forced to be a gestational parent, do men have the right not to be forced to be a genetic parent?

Absolutely says the husband, Drake Rooks, whereas his wife, Mandy Rooks, flips the argument and comes to the opposite conclusion. “No one,” she said in an emailed statement, “has the right to tell me that I have to kill my offspring.”

According to attorney Katayoun Donnelly, Drake Rooks “is saying he has a constitutional right not to be a parent, but he forgets it is past the point of conception”. A woman who wanted a man to donate his sperm would have no legal right to force that, she noted. By contrast, “he has already agreed to use his sperm with the eggs. So we are in this unknown territory.”

The husband’s attorney, James Giese, argues that the current case rests on a person’s constitutional right to privacy and to not have the state unduly influence whether someone should have children.

The Thomas More Society, writing in support of Mandy, has asserted the “personhood” of the embryos and their rights, saying that what is actually at stake is the termination of a human life or the continuation of that life.

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Taoiseach and Cabinet undecided on exact abortion legislation

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has expressed scepticism as to whether a proposal to allow abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks would meet public support. This was one of the recommendations of Oireachtas abortion committee. “I think it’s fair to say that… the proposal to allow for the termination of pregnancies up to 12 weeks went further than many people may have anticipated” Mr Varadkar told journalists after yesterday’s cabinet meeting. “There is a concern understandably among many politicians that perhaps for the majority of the public that proposal might go one step too far.” He refused to state his own preference.

Some Ministers, such as Paschal Donohoe and Michael Ring, said they agreed with the proposed 12 week unrestricted abortion licence but expressed doubt that such a regime would be accepted by the people. Chief Whip Joe McHugh said he would be opposed to the proposal. Nonetheless, the Dept of Health will continue to prepare legislation along the lines of the committee recommendations and no other legislative proposals on abortion are being prepared. Minister for Health Simon Harris told the Cabinet he expected to be in a position within three or four weeks to seek their formal agreement to hold a pre-summer referendum.

The Dáil will debate the Committee’s report for three days next week, which will be preceded by a special meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party next Monday.

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British campaigner seeks revolutionary change in Ireland to embrace fertility industry

A leading campaigner for assisted human reproduction from the UK has said it is “critical” that methods like IVF be legally regulated and publicly funded in this country so as to produce a wide cultural acceptance of the industry.

Professor Simon Fishel, a pioneer of IVF and founder of CARE Fertility in Britain, said: “It’s very important to have regulation. It takes away the ambiguity about what doctors and scientists can do. It creates a social acceptance. Even though there might always be a group who are against it they will have less of a voice because regulation has decreed, through intellectual deliberations, what is right and what is wrong.”

Regarding costs—each attempt at IVF costs up to €5,000—unlike Britain, the treatment is not available to public patients in Ireland. “It does mean poor people can’t have it,” says Prof Fishel. “It’s heartbreaking. That’s why public funding is so critical. Not only is it helping the individual but it’s helping society. Those children will contribute. Society needs them.”

Asked about future trends, he said “fertility preservation” would grow. With increasing pressure on women to work into their late 30s before having children, the professor recommended women freeze their eggs sometime between age 26 and 30. It costs about €4,500 to freeze eggs in this country and he said it should be funded from the public purse. This was “justified”, because of the value children bring to society: “I think if a society looks at how valuable children are, people should be assisted and helped to have them. Society needs them. Let’s welcome them into the world.”

In 2004, the Times of London named Prof Fishel as one of a few doctors who “have made fortunes from the fertility ‘industry’”. It reported at the time that his Centres for Assisted Reproduction, which he founded with two other doctors, was worth at least £20m. In 2012, the group was sold for £60m (€75m).

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Former Lib Dem leader regrets denying his Christian beliefs

Former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron has spoken of his “regret” at bowing to pressure to deny a moral belief of his Christian faith during the last UK general election.

Speaking on Premier radio, he said: “The bottom line is, of course, I did [feel pressured] and there are things – including that – that I said that I regret”. He expressed frustration that the media wanted to talk only about his Christian beliefs and whether he thought homosexual sex is sinful. “Foolishly and wrongly, [I] attempted to push it away by giving an answer that, frankly, was not right.”

Intense scrutiny over Tim Farron’s stance on homosexuality first ignited in July 2015 when he was repeatedly quizzed during an interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman. After his views on the issue drew renewed attention from journalists in the weeks prior to the 2017 General Election, Tim Farron told the BBC he did not believe gay sex was a sin. Less than two months later, Tim Farron resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats, saying he felt “torn” between his faith and job; he also admitted failings in his handling of the interest in him. At the time, he said: “A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.”

Tim Farron also told the radio interviewers of feeling “isolated” during the controversy. “I know that others were praying for me but there is a sense in which I was isolated. I had a wonderful team around me at HQ but with one exception, there were no Christians; it was not their fault they didn’t understand the issue,” he said.

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