John Smeaton: How Ireland’s bishops paved the way to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment

By John Smeaton

This talk was delivered on 17 May 2018 at the Rome Life Forum, one week before the Irish electorate voted, on 25 May, to strip unborn children of legal protection and open the way to the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. 

In his talk John Smeaton, Chief Executive of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and co-founder of Voice of the Family, exposed the pro-abortion position adopted by many Catholic bishops in Ireland during the referendum campaigns of 1992 and 2002, which contributed to last week’s disastrous result.

A true understanding of conscience – the necessity for heroic witness on the part of the pro-life and pro-family movement

Rome Life Forum, 17 May 2018

As far as abortion is concerned, the world’s attention is currently focused on Ireland and on their abortion referendum next week, on 25th May, concerning the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution. The outcome of that referendum will result in countless lives being saved or in countless lives being destroyed not only in Ireland, but all around the world, so great is the cultural influence of this small nation of 4.8 million citizens.

How individual consciences have been formed in Ireland is going to make a difference to the lives of ordinary people in countries throughout the world. If the Irish vote to defend the lives of unborn children, it will strengthen the pro-life movement worldwide. If the Irish on the other hand vote to destroy the lives of unborn children, the holocaust of abortion, which already dwarfs the total number of people killed in all human conflicts in the history of the world, will enter a new and more frightening era.

Ireland’s cultural influence worldwide is rooted in the blood of the Irish martyrs, in the sweat and sacrifices of Irish missionaries, in the ancient Catholic faith of Ireland, and in Ireland’s tragic social history leading to Irish emigrants enriching so many nations throughout the world with their faith. Above all, Ireland’s reputation is founded on its history as a Catholic nation which has spread the one true Catholic faith throughout the world

If Ireland says “Yes” to abortion, the media, the political establishment, academia, and people of faith and of no faith throughout the world will say: “The Catholic Church has raised the white flag on abortion.” They will not be right of course. But that is what will be said and it will have a devastating impact on the pro-life cause.

If we do nothing else after this conference, we must pray for a pro-life victory in Ireland next week.

In my presentation today on a true understanding of conscience and the need for heroic witness on the part of the pro-life and pro-family movement, I want to focus on two earlier abortion referendums in Ireland in 1992 and in 2002.

The eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, approved by referendum on 7th September 1983 and signed into law on 7th October 1983, famously declares:

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.

In 1992, the family of a 14-year old victim of rape sought an abortion for their daughter. The case was ultimately decided by the Irish Supreme Court. It’s known as the “X” case.  The eighth amendment of the Irish constitution was a measure intended to prevent the introduction of abortion by making the right to life of an unborn child equal with that of his mother. In a complete distortion of logic, the Supreme Court judges ruled that the Eighth Amendment had, in fact, legitimised abortion when a woman’s life was threatened by her pregnancy, even if, as in the “X” case, the threat was one of suicide.

In response to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Irish government decided to hold a referendum on abortion which sought to remove the threat of suicide as justification for an abortion. However, at the same time, the Irish government was seeking, on the basis of the referendum, to legalise abortion when there was a real and substantial risk to a woman’s life, including a psychological risk. In pursuit of their objective to destroy protection for unborn children, the Irish government threatened that if Irish citizens did not agree to their deadly referendum text, the Government would introduce abortion legislation in line with the Supreme Court judgement.

In a tragic development, the Irish Catholic authorities declared that Catholics were free to vote in accordance with their consciences on this measure.

Catholics must of course always vote according to their consciences – or at least not against their consciences. However, our consciences must be conformed to the divine law, and the Church has the obligation to direct Catholics according to divine law on such questions, and to make clear the eternal and temporal consequences of acting otherwise.

The people of Ireland, in 1992, were being invited by their bishops to vote in favour of an intrinsically unjust law which would permit abortion when there was a real and substantial risk to a woman’s life, including a psychological risk.

The people of Ireland, in 1992, were being invited by their bishops to consider voting in favour of a law which would introduce in a statutory form an unjust permission for abortion when there was a risk to a woman’s life, including a psychological risk.

How was it possible for the Irish Catholic authorities to invite Catholic voters to consider voting for a measure which would have introduced, for the first time, a statute legalizing abortion in Ireland, albeit after a permissive court judgement and under the threat of the Government introducing worse legislation?

At that time, in 1992, I spoke to a world-famous Catholic legal philosopher who told me that he had told the Irish bishops that they were justified giving such advice on the grounds that even more lives might be lost if the government carried out its threat to legislate on the basis of the Supreme Court judgement, in the event of Irish voters rejecting the proposed constitutional amendment.

I thought at the time, and I still think, that in the context of the intrinsically unjust law which Irish voters were being invited to support in 1992, it was equivalent to the Irish government handing an Irish citizen a gun, asking him to shoot a certain number of citizens on the basis that, unless he agrees to do so, the government will shoot, perhaps, even more citizens.

Shortly before the referendum, however, by the grace of God, five Bishops publicly declared their desire for a No vote. The Amendment was eventually rejected by 65.35 percent to 34.65. With such a substantial defeat the government withdrew its threat to introduce liberalising legislation.

The position of the majority of the Catholic bishops in Ireland in 1992, saying that Irish citizens could consider voting either “yes” or “no” to proposals relating to the killing of unborn children, undoubtedly dealt a tragic blow to the formation of consciences on abortion in Ireland.

In October 2001 the Irish Government, once again, published the terms of certain proposed amendments to the Irish Constitution. There was to be a referendum in March 2002 when the Irish people would be asked to vote to accept or reject new provisions to Article 40.3 of the Constitution whereby “the life of the unborn in the womb shall be protected in accordance with the provisions of the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Act 2002”.

The referendum and proposals arose from the Irish Supreme Court’s decision in the “X” case which, as I explained earlier, seemed, perversely, to indicate that, if a pregnant woman threatened suicide, an abortion carried out upon her would be considered legal under Irish law.  The declared intention of those who supported the Government’s proposals was to close this “loophole” but in fact the proposed constitutional change and legislation contained much more than that simple provision as I will explain.

On 22nd November 2001, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that it was expected that the bishops of Ireland would oppose the wording of the Irish constitutional amendment bill on abortion. Addressing a conference in Rome to mark the 20th anniversary of the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Cardinal Trujillo said: “The situation is delicate in Ireland but we expect that the bishops will react against this project.”

Three weeks later, the Irish Catholic bishops did the opposite of what His Eminence Cardinal Lopez Trujillo said was expected. On 12th December 2001, the bishops came out in support of the government’s proposals which they indicated would offer “more secure protection … to the unborn” and, totally misleadingly, they added, that the proposals included “a clear legal prohibition on procured abortion”.

The Irish bishops said: “In dealing with what appears to be a limited or imperfect measure, we believe that, in the context of The Gospel of Life, number 73, Catholic voters should feel free in conscience to support this measure, even if it is viewed as less than desired. We are of the view that a clear legal prohibition on procured abortion, as set out in this proposal, represents an important step towards ensuring adequate protection for the life of the unborn …”

The Irish Catholic bishops were disastrously mistaken in how they interpreted the government’ proposal.

Contrary to the Catholic Bishops of Ireland’s advice, the law would have allowed abortion to be carried out by doctors where “in the reasonable opinion of the practitioner [it is] necessary to prevent a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life other than by self destruction.”[1] It was established in English law as long ago as 1939[2] that saving a woman’s life was (in the context of abortion) interpreted by the Courts to mean preventing her from becoming “a physical or mental wreck”, in other words a much wider interpretation than simply preventing her death.  There is every reason to suspect that a similar interpretation would be given in Ireland.

The new law would have repealed the Offences Against the Person Act 1861[3], which was the underlying law (subject to the Irish Constitution) which prohibited abortion in Ireland.  The same 1861 Act applied also in the United Kingdom and especially in Northern Ireland where the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply.  The British Abortion Act 1967 has largely undermined the 1861 Act in Britain but the Act does not apply in Northern Ireland. Pro-lifers in Northern Ireland were rightly concerned at proposals to repeal the Act in the Irish Republic.  The repeal of the Act would have had repercussions in the whole of the U.K. and indeed in many parts of the former British Empire where laws based upon the 1861 Act still apply.

At that time, there was no more loyal servant of the Catholic Church than Mr. Justice Rory O’Hanlon, a former Irish High Court judge and a very well-known and experienced pro-lifer in Ireland, who died in the spring of 2002.  He was reported[4] as having said that he “would not support a measure which was contrary to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church.”  When he saw the referendum proposal he described it as, “the most serious attack yet witnessed on the integrity of our Constitution” which he argued would “definitely liberalise Irish abortion law greatly so as to increase abortions in Ireland.”  He said, “The proposal is intrinsically evil.”

Secondly, the new legislation would have introduced into Irish law a definition of abortion as the intentional killing of unborn children “after implantation”[5].  As a purely factual definition, this is untrue.  No one should be asked to vote for an untruth.

One of the most important aspects of the whole abortion debate is the question of what the woman is carrying in her body. Is the woman gestating an actual human being? When does the life of an individual human being begin? Today, from a scientific point of view, the question of when a new human life begins is relatively uncontroversial. Birth is an important stage in a baby’s life, but that life begins many months earlier, at fertilisation. Any search will quickly yield authoritative statements by human embryologists which confirm this.

Peter Singer, a contemporary philosopher and public supporter of abortion, also acknowledges that: “there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being.”[6]

The false definition of abortion to exclude from its meaning deliberate attacks on a preimplantation human embryo was preceded in the Bill by the words “In this Act”[7] and it was claimed, therefore, including by the Catholic bishops of Ireland, that this definition was limited to be used within the narrow confines of this particular law alone.  In practice, however, what this law would have done, had it been approved in the referendum, would have been to enshrine this false definition of abortion at the heart of the Irish Constitution.

It is clearly no coincidence that in September and October 2001, just as the referendum proposals were being published, the Irish Medicines Board was considering an application to license the morning-after pill in Ireland.  Approval was given to the morning-after pill on the mendacious ground that the morning-after pill was solely a contraceptive, not an abortifacient.  In connection with the application the Medical Director of the Irish Medicines Board advised the Board that, “The proposed referendum on abortion helps to clarify the issue in that it proposes to define an abortion as occurring after implantation of a fertilised egg”[8].  There is no acknowledgement here that this definition was intended only to be applied to that specific law.  And yet, this statement was made on 24th October 2001, only weeks after the draft law was published, months before the referendum was due to take place, and long before the law might come into force.

On the day the Irish Catholic bishops issued their statement supporting the Government’s proposals, SPUC issued a statement in which I was quoted as follows: “The action of the Bishops in supporting the wording of this referendum is deplorable. They are giving credence to a proposal that suggests early abortion [that is, the abortion of pre-implantation embryos] can be discounted … This is not purely an Irish domestic matter. As an issue of human rights, abortion always transcends national boundaries … The wording of the amendment is designed to facilitate the promotion of early abortion by such means as the morning after pill and the intra-uterine device. Legislators and judges around the world could pick up on the re-definition of abortion in this proposal and use it to undermine the status of the early embryo in other countries …” SPUC’s statement went on to explain other serious flaws in in the Irish Government’s 2002 proposal pointing out that Clause 1(2) exempts from the definition of abortion medical procedures carried out “at an approved place” which involve the death of the unborn child where there is a “real and substantial” risk to the mother’s life … this is legitimising intentional killing of unborn children”.

As Richard Gordon, a leading human rights lawyer employed by SPUC, wrote at the time: “The second most important vice of the new regime is that it appears to permit the direct killing of even a post-implanted embryo.” This was because, he explained, clause 1(2) of the Bill not only allows the ending of life of the protected embryo “as a result” of the carrying out of a medical procedure but also “in the course of which” medical procedure life is ended.

Richard Gordon also argued that the wording of the proposals paved the way for wider and more intensive research into in vitro techniques since, if life in vivo is unprotected by law so, too, must life in vitro be unprotected; and that they also paved the way for the introduction into the Irish Republic of the licensing and distribution of post coital preparations commonly known as the morning after pill which, inter alia, destroy the pre-implanted embryo.

On 1st December 2001, I wrote to His Eminence Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, who was president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. My letter began: “I felt I should write to you immediately to let you know that SPUC has issued a press statement describing the action of the Irish bishops in supporting the government’s wording of the referendum on abortion as deplorable” and I went on to explain why.

The next paragraph in my letter to his Eminence stated:

“In addition, SPUC has been told something which, frankly, we do not believe. It is being said in Ireland that His Eminence Cardinal Ratzinger gave his support to the government’s wording of the abortion referendum in October. In the circumstances”, I wrote “would it be possible for the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to make a clear statement regarding the Irish government’s disastrous wording for the abortion referendum, to which the Irish bishops have tragically given their support?”

I received no direct reply from His Eminence Cardinal Trujillo who never spoke publicly about Ireland’s 2002 abortion referendum after his statement of 22nd November to which I referred earlier – except for an enigmatic handwritten note from the cardinal posted to me from the Vatican on 27th December 2012 in which he said: “Con i mili concliali saluti. Non ho dato resposta. Sono persone molto fideli e influentii …”

By the grace of God, the Government’s 2002 proposals were narrowly rejected in the referendum held on 6 March 2002, with 49.6% in favour. The voting was 629,041 No and 618,485 Yes. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children was bitterly attacked by the Irish Catholic bishops’ conference for our involvement in the campaign, and by certain pro-life groups in Ireland who supported the bishops’ position; and Dana, a singing star, former Member of the European Parliament, and former presidential candidate in Ireland, who led the pro-life campaign against the Government’s proposal to legalise abortion, suffered intense and prolonged attack from the same sources. The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales also attacked SPUC.

Following the defeat of the 2002 referendum, on 13th March 2002, the Irish bishops issued a statement which included the following paragraph: “We vigorously refute the analysis of our Statement of 12 December 2001 implying that the bishops of Ireland have somehow compromised Church teaching on the sacredness of human life in the interests of political expediency. Our Statement clearly indicated that the proposed amendment would strengthen legal protection for the unborn only after implantation in the womb. However, we were satisfied that the proposal did not in itself deny or devalue the worth and dignity of the human embryo prior to implantation. Our position, therefore, is absolutely consistent with the universal teaching of the Catholic Church, and we confirm that our Statement of 12 December was fully endorsed by the Church authorities in Rome.”

In April 2002, His Eminence Cardinal Trujillo was installed as Cardinal Bishop of Frascati and I had the honour of receiving his personal invitation to attend the ceremony and his congratulations to the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children for the role it had played in the 2002 referendum.

Whilst I was in Rome, he invited me into his office to express his dismay concerning the position adopted by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. He told me that he had been present at a meeting which including Cardinal Connell, the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Ratzinger, himself and others. He said that the meeting had clearly reached a conclusion opposing the Irish Government’s proposals. Referring to all that had happened, including the Irish bishops’ claim that they had the support of Rome, Cardinal Lopez Trujillo said to me: “What could I do? There would have been a split on the right of the Church”.

In fairness to the Irish bishops, both before the publication of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, in 1995, and since then, there has been a more or less universal policy pursued by pro-life groups of campaigning for laws which expressly permit the killing of certain unborn children. This is based on a mistaken interpretation of Evangelium Vitae, number 73.

  • In Evangelium Vitae, number 72, Pope John Paul II reminded the faithful that a law which permits the killing of certain unborn children is not a law at all. It’s an unjust law which, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas “ceases to be a law and becomes instead an act of violence”[9]. Pope John Paul II, in this connection, cites the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and its 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion which states: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it”[10].
  • Many have justified their campaigns in support of unjust laws by quoting the very next paragraph of Evangelium Vitae, number 73, where Pope John Paul II famously wrote: “A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on … In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.”
  • For over two decades perhaps the majority of pro-life and church leaders have interpreted this paragraph as meaning that politicians may vote for, and campaigners may campaign for laws which of themselves expressly permit abortions such as was clearly the case in Ireland’s 2002 abortion referendum. But this is contrary to reason. In the paragraph immediately preceding this one, Pope John Paul II wrote: “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is … never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it”.

Frequently in our pro-life and pro-family work, Catholic lay people in the pro-life and pro-life family movements must speak up, take a lead, and, if necessary, unequivocally contradict the advice of Catholic pastors who misdirect the faithful on matters of life and death, and on matters relating to the family, not least to parents as the primary educators of their children. There are numerous other examples I would love to explore in this talk – from Britain, from the Vatican and from other parts of the world, concerning the bishops. I will happily provide anyone interested with articles and blogposts I have written on this topic.

In the meantime, our top priority must be to pray for Ireland – as the Irish bishops are rightly urging – and for what’s at stake in the abortion referendum next week.

As Anthony Murphy, the editor of Ireland’s Catholic Voice has said: “If Ireland removes constitutional protection for unborn children, we will be responsible for the slaughter of innocent children not only in Ireland but throughout the world. “If in 2018 Ireland defies God’s law ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and votes to allow the killing of unborn children, I have little doubt that the dam will burst in country after country the world over.”

When the Eighth Amendment was passed by the people of Ireland in 1983, a battle in which the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children played a leading role, rosary crusades preceded it, and the victory was won on Our Lady’s Birthday and constitutional change protecting the unborn came into effect on the Feast of the Holy Rosary. There’s an urgent need to pray the rosary now, and after the vote next week, whatever the result of the Referendum might be. Our pro-abortion enemies will not stop and we must not stop working and imploring God and His Blessed Mother to protect the unborn in Ireland and throughout the world.


[1] Clause 1(2) of the Bill

[2] R v. Bourne [1939] 1K.B. 687

[3] Clause 6 of the Bill

[4] The Catholic Times, 14th April 2002

[5] Clause 1(1) of the Bill

[6]  Singer, P. (1993). Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7] Clause 1(1) of the Bill

[8] Note dated 24th October 2001 to the Irish Medicines Board from the Medical Director prior to Board meeting of 31st October 2001

[9]Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 93, a. 3, ad 2um.

[10]Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion (18 November 1974), No. 22: AAS 66 (1974), 744.