In Ireland, What’s Legal Is Now Mandatory

Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives to speak a rally celebrating the results of the abortion referendum in Dublin, May 26, 2018. (Max Rossi/Reuters)
The legalization of abortion in Ireland sparks a debate about conscience.

Before heading into the last general election, Ireland’s future Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had described his views as “pro-life” and insisted that he was committed to keeping the protection of life in the Irish constitution, even if he supported an alteration. But things change quickly.

Once in office, and anticipating the change in public opinion, Varadkar came around to support repealing the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s constitution, which recognized the equal right of the unborn child to life. When Repeal passed overwhelmingly in a national referendum, Varadkar declared the result a Quiet Revolution in Irish life.

And now he’s intent on carrying that quiet revolution further. Varadkar’s full position on what repeal means has only become clear after the votes were cast. National Review predicted in its editorial on the referendum that victory for Repeal would be swiftly followed by attempts to coerce Catholic institutions to provide abortion. Now Varadkar has promised as much.

Confronted in the Dáil by politicians asking how the state would provide abortion, Varadkar said that Catholic hospitals will be compelled to do so. Acknowledging that there will be some conscience protections allowed for individual doctors and nurses, Varadkar explained: “But it will not be possible for publicly funded hospitals, no matter who their patron or owner is, to opt out of providing these necessary services, which will be legal in the state once the legislation is passed by the Dáil and the Seanad.”

Varadkar laid the stress on the fact that the procedure is now legal, and that the hospitals are publicly funded, as if that settled the matter. This is an argument that is coming to America as well. If the state reimburses hospitals for care they give to patients entitled to government assistance, the argument goes, then the state has the right to compel every type of care.

Altering the religious ethos of Catholic hospitals by fiat turns religious people into pariahs.

Varadkar has made some rhetorical gestures to those who voted not to repeal the Eighth. He has once said that his party should give a warm welcome to social conservatives. And in his remarks to the Dáil, he warned against socialists and other politicians who seek to “turn religious people into pariahs.”

But altering the religious ethos of Catholic hospitals by fiat seems to do just that. Further, it is becoming increasingly clear that the conscience protections the government considers expedient for pro-life doctors in Ireland really amount to the right to delude oneself while participating in abortion in a remote way. A doctor that does not want to participate in abortion would be legally obliged to refer a patient who requested an abortion to a doctor that would provide it. From a normal pro-life perspective, this means referring one patient, the mother, to a doctor who would harm another patient, the unborn child.

Underlying all this is the fact that Irish history has allowed Ireland little practice in pluralism. Whether under an established Protestant Church, or as an independent Catholic democracy, moral debates that touch on the state in Ireland have tended to be national in scope. Protestant senators in the Irish state once objected to a majoritarian democracy outlawing divorce. Now, Ireland has a legacy of Catholic institutions administrating in health and education, even as the official culture and the state adopts the liberal norms of the rest of Western Europe and the Anglosphere. Ireland, like America, is discovering that the legalization of abortion is not the end of a debate, but the beginning of another.

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