Last week, members of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, and pro-choice organizations invited me to speak at a meeting in Dublin. The meeting came as parliament was in the midst of debates over a small change to the law, one that would allow women whose lives are at risk as a result of pregnancy to access an abortion without having to travel overseas.
The parliamentarians and activists all seek progressive change in the country’s abortion laws—many wanting much more than is currently on offer. As we talked, I was struck about the similarities that Ireland shared with the country I was born in, the Philippines.
I am proud of my country for many reasons, but mainly for its people. Like the Irish, Filipinos are warm and hospitable people with world-class talents, and many of us work overseas to remit money back to our loved ones.
One thing I am certainly not proud of is the fact that one-third of the county’s 95 million people live in dire poverty.
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A lack of resources forces many to make choices they should not have to make. This is especially the case in relation to health care, where life and death situations occur far too often.
For 15 years, I fought for a bill that would give my compatriots a choice when it came to family planning.
For 15 years, I watched it languish in parliamentary limbo because of vehement opposition from a determined Catholic hierarchy.
Last December that opposition finally was defeated, and a reproductive health bill was passed.
The parliament stood up for the rights of the people in the Philippines and passed a bill that allows women to, in good faith, make the reproductive health decisions that meet their needs and not those of the hierarchy.
I do not believe that people—especially Catholics—in either the Philippines or Ireland want our elected officials to bend a knee to the will of the bishops.
I’m not suggesting that, in a democratic society, any voice should be silenced, whether or not I agree with it. But it is the job of politicians to carefully examine every lobby group, whether it is a union, a business, or a bishop, before accepting its assertions.
There are a few questions politicians should ask themselves before they accept the bishops’ counsel.
First, does this group speak for the people? A poll showed that 75 percent of people in Ireland—a substantial majority—back wider access to abortion.
Second, is what the group saying correct? On abortion, the evidence shows that increased access to safe and legal reproductive health care services helps women. Clarity in the law would most likely have saved Savita Halappanavar’s life. The bishops’ assertion about the impact of abortion in general and this law in particular are wildly off-target.
Thirdly, how would the changes this group is proposing affect a secular, democratic society?
Every country’s leaders should govern in a manner that allows people to make the best decision for themselves and for their families. The bishops do not believe this.
However, it is worth remembering that the church’s own laws do not require Catholic politicians to legislate according to church teachings.
In addition, Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, promotes a broad definition of religious freedom, stating that it is “imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice.”
Imposing the hierarchy’s interpretation of the church’s teaching on abortion onto all Irish people would appear to be the antithesis of supporting such an expansive vision of religious freedom.
Individual lawmakers and individual citizens may not agree with the law and may not choose abortion for themselves, regardless of the circumstances they are in. But personal beliefs should not be used to deny the right to others to make those decisions, in good faith and in good conscience.
Irish legislators now face a similar decision to their colleagues in the Philippines: They will either bow to the hierarchy or permit Irish women, Catholic or otherwise, to make their own reproductive health decisions.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the death of United States’ only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, we would do well to recall one of his many fine speeches:
I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President if I should be elected—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
The conversations I had with the activists in Ireland were honest, forthright, and touching. They want to see real change in their homeland’s anti-abortion laws. I trust that Irish politicians will take their views and President Kennedy’s words into account and do what is right for Irish women, their families, and the nation.