Opening address by Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan at the ‘Crisis of Democracy in Ireland’ conference

31 Oct 2017

I am happy to address a few words to this conference which is being hosted by John Waters and his colleagues and am happy to be here as a guest.

This conference has a topic which is really worth considering and thinking deeply about – the crisis of democracy in Ireland today.

I speak to you just two days after students at University College Dublin have voted to impeach Students’ Union president Katie Ascough who is unashamedly pro-life and who refused to have printed by the SU clearly pro-abortion material.

The count on Thursday night showed a clear majority in favour of removing the pro-life supporter.

Speaking after the result, Ascough thanked her campaign team and said: “I have fought the good fight.  I have been open and honest. I have respected the law.  I feel confident that I’ve done all that I could do for the students that I have been elected to represent.  This is a sad day for me.”

So if you are pro-life and a SU president you will have a hard time in Ireland.  Where is freedom of speech?

Where is the freedom to speak one’s mind? Is this not a basic element of any democratic society?  And what of the most basic of human rights?

  • The right to life
  • A few months ago the bishops of Ireland produced a paper to speak to this whole question – called Two Lives.  One Love.  I quote a few relevant excerpts from it.

The Right to Life as a Fundamental Personal Right

Article 40 of the Constitution has the heading “Personal Rights” and is situated in a section entitled “Fundamental Rights”.  In this way, long before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated by the United Nations, the Irish people recognised the fundamental nature of rights such as the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to the privacy of one’s home and the right to freedom of speech.

Fundamental human rights are different from civil rights.  While civil rights are the rights given by law to citizens in a particular society, fundamental human rights belong to every person simply because he or she is a person.  Fundamental human rights are not “given” by society and they cannot be taken away by society.  Fundamental rights are “acknowledged” in constitutions and charters and “vindicated” in the application of the law.  They are what the United Nations refers to as the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”.

Article 40.3.3, sometimes referred to as the Eighth Amendment, reads:

“the State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right”.

The deletion or amendment of Article 40.3.3, would serve no purpose other than to withdraw the right to life from some categories of unborn children.  To do so would radically change the principle, for all unborn children and indeed for all of us, that the right to life is a fundamental human right.

During the current debate some have argued that abortion itself is a human right.  We see this view as being inconsistent with an integral understanding of human rights.  We would point out that the European Convention on Human Rights requires that “everyone’s right to life shall be protected by the law”.  The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as meaning “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”.  No distinction is made between born and unborn children. 

We invite the attention of the Assembly Members to a number of aspects of Article 40.3.3, which we believe to be significant:

In this Article, the State does not concede the right to life to the unborn, but acknowledges that right as a fundamental right, which belongs to the unborn by virtue of his or her being a person.  A person is an individual member of the human family, to use the description given in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 40.3.3 describes the right to life of the unborn as “equal” to the right to life of the mother.  It quite rightly does not place the right to life of the unborn above that of the mother.

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 our towns and villages.  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.

The Unborn as Persons

We would ask you to be guided in your deliberations by the reality of what happens in the life of each human being, between conception and birth.  There is no moment as developmentally significant as the moment of fertilisation, in terms of defining the beginnings of personal existence.  There is no logical or scientific basis for considering, on the one hand, a born child to be a person with all the rights that this involves and, on the other hand, an unborn child to be a non-person.  The distinct identity of a human individual is already present once fertilisation has taken place.  Everything else is simply the process of growth and development of a person who has already embarked on the journey of life.

For us, as Christians, there is no conflict between faith and reason.  Just as reason leads us to recognise the continuity of every human life, from fertilisation to natural death, so faith allows us to see each person as having his or her origins in the intention of God and his or her fulfilment in eternal life.  This belief, expressed in various ways in the Bible, is presented very beautifully by Pope Francis in his 2016 publication The Joy of Love. He says:

“The gift of a new child, entrusted by the Lord to a father and a mother, begins with acceptance, continues with lifelong protection and has as its final goal the joy of eternal life. ….. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being.”

The Power of Language

We wish to refer briefly to the use of language with reference to unborn children.  Words like “foetus” and “embryo” and “zygote” have specific technical meanings.  We question why, in public discourse, healthy unborn children are always referred to as “the baby” while those who, in the opinion of some, do not measure up to expectations are routinely defined as the “foetus” or the “embryo”.  We are concerned that language is being used with the intention of depersonalising certain categories of unborn children in a way which seeks to normalise abortion.

The Positive Effects of Article 40.3.3 – A Culture of Life

Many thousands of Irish people are alive as a direct result of the enactment of the Eighth Amendment, who might otherwise never have been born.  This is partly because there was an inevitable interval between the thought of having an abortion and that thought being put into action.  That interval allowed women, often with the support of family members, partners or pregnancy care agencies such as our own Cura, to consider other, more constructive, options.

Quite apart from the numbers of lives that were saved as a result of Article 40.3.3, expectant parents who experience a crisis pregnancy have been culturally supported in making the decision in favour of life and in avoiding a decision which many of them may have regretted afterwards.  This cultural support was not simply in the fact that Irish society had made a public statement of principle about the right to life, but also because the structures of society, including healthcare facilities, were not deployed, as they are in many countries, to promote or facilitate the taking of life as an appropriate social response to crisis pregnancy.

The goal of good maternal care would be to achieve a maternal mortality rate of zero.  Sadly this is practically impossible because there are some potentially fatal medical conditions related to pregnancy which cannot easily be predicted for individual women.  According to the most recent figures, published by the World Health Organisation in 2015, the maternal mortality rate for Ireland is 8 per 100,000 live births.[6]  This places Ireland in the lowest, or best, category (number 26 out of 190 countries, and consistently ahead of the United States and the United Kingdom, where abortion is readily available)

What abortion is and what abortion is not: the Catholic Church’s teaching

Some of those who advocate deleting or changing Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, have made it clear that they wish to make abortion available on demand in Ireland.  Others say that they are opposed to abortion in general, but would want to see it permitted in certain difficult circumstances.

We do not share that view, because we believe that every unborn child, irrespective of his or her medical condition or the circumstances of his or her birth, has the right to be treated equally before the law.

We are concerned that some elements of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the right to life tend to be presented inaccurately:

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.
(If the baby survives everyone is happy because the intention was to save the lives of both. In an abortion the baby is the target.)

Abortion, by contrast, is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby and is gravely immoral in all circumstances.  It is not a medical treatment.

We are all concerned I suppose with fairness and justice.  How can it be fair to deny some human beings the same rights as we enjoy?  How can that be democratic?

So, I am happy to open this day’s conference and hope that the speakers will help us to think clearly about the issues with which our country is being faced.  Thank you.


  • Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan is Bishop of Waterford and Lismore.  This address was delivered in the Theatre Royal in Waterford city on 28 October 2017.                                               

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