Promoting a Culture of Life

Promoting a Culture of Life
Address Given by Bishop Kevin Doran at the Clarion Hotel Sligo, 24th November 2015 (event organised by Family & Life)


*Pauline’s Baby (not real name)

About two days after my ordination to the priesthood, and before I was even appointed to any formal ministry, my mother asked me if I would do something for her. She had been approached by a woman in the parish, who asked if I would be willing to meet a young work colleague of hers who was pregnant and was planning to take the boat to England at the weekend to have an abortion. Pauline had agreed to meet me on condition that I would meet her in the local pub in civvies. After chatting for a while, I suggested to her that we might travel into Dublin and see if Cura would be in a position to offer any advice. We sat together in the waiting room, just like any couple might, except that we were not holding hands. Much to my surprise Pauline asked if I could come in with her to meet the counsellor. Predictably, the counsellor put two and two together and assumed that I was “the father”.

I am delighted to say that Pauline was supported through her pregnancy and decided to keep the baby. I don’t know where he is today but he is about thirty eight years of age.  He is alive because of three good women. One was the woman who suggested an alternative to the abortion boat, another was the woman who had made herself available as a volunteer counsellor, and the third, of course, was his mother who decided to carry on with the pregnancy, trusting in the support of her family and of her Church. That was my first experience of what it means to promote a culture of life.

Daughters and Sons of a God who Loves us

Many people, including Catholics, identify Christianity with moral teaching. I’m here tonight in my capacity as a Catholic Bishop so it may be helpful, as I begin these few reflections, to say that Christianity is not primarily about a set of doctrines, but a relationship with a person, Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be the Son of God. As a historical fact, he was born in Bethlehem in Judaea and his mother was Mary.

In the course of his ministry, Jesus set out to make known in word and action, the love of God, especially for those who are in any way on the margins. Pope Francis has described him as the “Face of God’s Mercy”[1]. In his First Letter, the Apostle John, often referred to as “the disciple Jesus loved”, invites his readers to “think of the love that the father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children”.[2] The whole of Christian morality, whether it has to do with economic justice, human rights or any other aspect of life, is rooted in this idea that we are the daughters and sons of a God who loves us, and we are called to reflect that love in our own relationships with one another.

I think most people, be they Christian or not, would broadly subscribe to the idea that we should love one another and treat our fellow human beings fairly. So far so good. But then, remember the lawyer in the Gospel who asked Jesus “who is my neighbour?”[3] In much the same way people are inclined to ask “Ah, but who are ‘my fellow human beings’?”

In recent years it has been widely accepted that it is more appropriate to speak of “people with disability” than to refer to “disabled people”. The focus is on the person. The same should apply to people at the beginning and the end of life; they are, first and foremost, people.  By contrast, the first step towards excluding people is to define them as if they were, in some way less than fully human. The Nazis attempted to categorise the Jews in this way by measuring their heads to show that they were genetically different. Fundamentalist Christians twisted the Bible in an attempt to demonstrate that Black South Africans or African Americans were inferior to white people. People who live life on the margins tend to be very easily marginalised. There is no doubt whatsoever from a scientific or philosophical point of view, that the unborn and those who are at an advanced stage of terminal illness are correctly classified among our fellow human beings. Yet they exist on the margins of life. They are easy to categorise and this makes them vulnerable.

In a recent address on the power of words, Fr. Tom Casey SJ commented on the manner in which the media referred to the unborn children of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, throughout her pregnancy:

To the best of my knowledge, neither of those children, while in the womb of the Duchess of Cambridge, was ever called by the media a “fetus” or her “property” or “possession” or “less than human” or a “non-person”.  Instead, each of them was regularly called a “future monarch”.

 During both of her pregnancies, the Duchess of Cambridge suffered from, hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe morning sickness.  And I cannot remember anyone wondering would she have an abortion because of this, although research in the UK earlier this year.[4] showed that 10% of British women who suffer from this same sickness have abortions because of it.

I now want to say something about the concept of a “useless life”. The Utilitarian world view, which is quite prevalent in our contemporary “Western” culture tends to value things in terms of their usefulness, or how much they contribute to “the happiness of the greatest number of people”. In that way of thinking, those who are “invisible”, whether physically or psychologically, are often considered to have nothing to contribute. Christianity, however, thinks of every human life as having a unique value, because every human being, created in the image of God, is destined for eternal life. The value of a human life is not determined by its length or by the physical or mental capacity of the person. There is no such thing as a life without value.

The beginning 1980-83

In 1980, just three years after I was ordained, I became aware of a small but vociferous campaign in the media for the legalisation of abortion. The very idea of abortion is abhorrent to me, because I believe that nobody has the right to take the life of an innocent human being. I believe, likewise, that abortion is a violation of the dignity of the mother.

I responded to the “Women’s’ Right to Choose Campaign” on two levels:

  1. I got together with five other people, mainly women, to establish a service to support women in crisis pregnancy. This became LIFE Pregnancy Care and continues today to reach out to women in need.
  2. I became involved with researching the way in which the right to life of the unborn and the question of abortion had been dealt with in other jurisdictions.

One of the first things I learnt, to my surprise, was that abortion was then (and still is now) illegal in Britain, under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The 1967 Act did not replace the 1861 Act. It was introduced on the pretext of allowing abortion under particular difficult circumstances, on medical grounds. In theory it was meant to respond to cases in which the mothers’ life was at risk due to pregnancy. It has subsequently been reinterpreted in such a way that risk to the woman’s life includes any risk to her health, including her mental health. In theory, again, the 1967 Act only allows abortion on medical grounds. In practice however, with the collaboration of a large cohort of healthcare professionals, it has become simply another means of birth control and preferential sex selection.

I also learnt that part of the strategy endorsed by the International Planned Parenthood Federation involved deliberately defying the law on abortion, in order to bring it into disrepute and eventually to have it repealed. Planed Parenthood Federation of America, on the evidence of its own employees, seems to have continued, right up to the present time, to show a total disregard for the law. As you may have seen recently, video footage has surfaced of PPFA staff explaining how they facilitate the procurement and sale of foetal body parts, without the knowledge or consent of the mother.[5]


The Pro-Life Amendment

Many people began to realise that, if neighbouring democratic societies, which were otherwise considered to be civilised, had nonetheless legislated for abortion, this could just as easily happen in Ireland. This realisation was what led to the proposal to include a pro-life amendment in the Irish Constitution. The intention was to ensure that the Oireachtas could not legislate to introduce abortion in Ireland. The pro-life amendment would also have the benefit of including a clear statement of principle in the primary legal document of the Republic. This proposal went hand in hand with a growth in understanding and compassion and in the provision of voluntary services for women in crisis pregnancy.

The two main political parties agreed on the principle of having a pro-life amendment. The main point of disagreement was on what form it should take. The referendum, when it took place was passed by a very substantial majority. It inserted into the constitution, under the heading of personal rights, a new Article 40.3.3. 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. [vi]

It was described by some commentators as a “divisive” referendum. That was something of a tautology because, by definition, any referendum divides those who vote “Yes” from those who vote “No”. The alternative was to do nothing and allow events to take their course. I personally believe that change should not just be something that happens to us; we must be proactive in forming the future. I had no doubt that those who wanted to legalise abortion would not be waiting around for things to happen.

Looking back now, I have no hesitation in saying that we got it right. I am convinced that thousands of lives have been saved and, notwithstanding the large numbers who travelled to England over the years, a great number of women were culturally supported in not choosing abortion.

There are, of course, pregnancies which present significant difficulties for all sorts of reasons, emotional, medical and economic, but “hard cases do not make good law”. I will discuss some of the difficult circumstances in a few moments, but first of all I want to say something about the X case and how the Supreme Court, in my view, misinterpreted the Constitution.

The X Case

People of my generation will remember that the X case concerned a young teenage girl whose parents contacted the Irish authorities from Britain to ask what would be the legal consequences if they brought their daughter for an abortion in England. This was in 1992. The High Court, rather surprisingly in my view, concluded that this would be illegal. They were, after all, in England, where the Irish Courts had no jurisdiction.

Amid a media storm, the case was referred to the Supreme Court. The Court, in my view, allowed itself to be bounced by media pressure into making a judgement which was logically flawed in many respects and which completely misinterprets the 8th Amendment.

People who are too young to remember 1992, will remember how public opinion, formed by inaccurate reports in the media, got it badly wrong, in the tragic case of Savita Halappanaver who died during pregnancy in 2012. In that case, if you remember, it eventually became clear that the unfortunate young woman did not die because she was refused an abortion, but because of a “failure to provide the most basic elements of care in her case”. [vii]Many opportunities were missed which might have changed the outcome for her. By the time the report was published in September 2014, however, the idea that the 8th Amendment was the problem, had almost become part of Irish Folk-history.

The people of Ireland, in the eighth amendment, acknowledged the right to life of the unborn, and the equal right to life of the mother”. By contrast, the Supreme Court, in effect, argues that the right to life of the unborn child is not really equal to the right to life of the mother. It is worth spending a few moments on the actual judgements delivered by the five judges.


  • Justice Finlay maintained that the threat to the life of the mother carried greater weight than the threat to the life of the unborn. This is hard to understand, given that the risk to the life of the mother was a matter of speculation or at most probability, while the threat to the unborn was certain.


  • Justice McCarthy acknowledged that the magnitude of risk applying to the mother would always be less than that applying to the child to be aborted. He still maintained, however, that abortion is envisaged by the eighth amendment, and he uses the expression “with due regard” as if it in some sense cancelled out the expression “equal right to life”.


  • Justice Egan interpreted the terms “with due regard for the equal right to life of the mother” and “as far as practicable” to mean that an abortion will not in every possible circumstance be unlawful. His conclusion does not follow logically from the premises. In reality, these phrases simply acknowledge that, despite the best efforts of the state to carry out its responsibility, the unborn will sometimes die, whether naturally, through medical complications, or through some human agency which is beyond the reasonable control of the state. To acknowledge that the unborn may die, and that the state may be helpless in the face of this death, is fundamentally different to suggesting that it may ever be lawful for the unborn to be killed. The key issue is that of intention.


The Supreme Court, instead of interpreting the Constitution, seems to have gone beyond it and changed its meaning, which it is not the competence of the Court to do. The Court should have respected the stated intention of the vast majority of the Irish people, and might usefully have made reference to the principle of double-effect, which allows for all necessary medical treatment for the mother.

The basis for the decisions in both the X Case, and subsequently the C case, would seem to be the very strong public sympathy for the young women concerned who were pregnant. The ground-swell of compassion was perfectly valid and understandable in both cases, but what is not understandable is that judges of the Supreme Court should allow the emotionally charged atmosphere to obscure one of the essential facts, namely that the unborn child also has rights, both under natural law and under the Constitution.

Given that, in both cases, the state seemed disposed to believe that the mother was subject to grave pressure, and likely to commit suicide, the question arises as to how else the state might have carried out its responsibility of care, other than by consenting to and, in the C case, formally participating in an abortion.

The Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act

The Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act was introduced in 2013 to legislate for the findings of the X Case. It provides for the termination of pregnancy in cases when the life of the mother is at risk, either through medical complication or because of a threat of suicide.

From both a practical and a moral point of view, there is a vast difference between abortion and medical treatment. Unfortunately, it is pro-abortion strategy to convince people that abortion is necessary for the care of women in pregnancy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The following examples may help to explain this.

1.Cancer of the Cervix

The treatment for cancer is always a very serious matter and one which requires great professionalism. In the case of cancer of the cervix during pregnancy the treatment of the woman is essentially the same as it would be at any other time. It doesn’t ignore the reality of pregnancy or the well-being of the unborn child, but it is realistic about what it is possible to achieve. In early pregnancy, the baby would be unlikely to survive even if the mother’s treatment were to be delayed, whereas the woman’s life would be placed at great risk. Medical treatment, involving surgery, medication or a combination of both must be the priority. Objectively it is not an abortion because the target is the disease, not the baby. While the baby inevitably dies, the intention is to save whatever life can be saved. If cancer were diagnosed in the final three months of pregnancy, the pregnancy would be “terminated” by delivering the baby early with the intention of saving both lives. Intention is crucial.

2. Ectopic Pregnancy

An ectopic (or tubal pregnancy) happens when the fertilized ovum doesn’t travel down into the womb. It can be quite dangerous for the mother and often requires surgery which results in the death of the embryo. This, like the previous example, is justified under what is known as the principle of “double effect” because the bad effect is not intended, and is not disproportionate to the good effect, and because the mother’s life is saved by the treatment of her fallopian tube and not by the destruction of the embryo. There are also chemical treatments for ectopic pregnancy which involve directly destroying the embryo. While the end result seems to be the same for the embryo, these treatments using metathrexate are morally unacceptable because they actually target the embryo directly.

3. Eclampsia

Another common problem during pregnancy is eclampsia (associated with high blood pressure). This is unpredictable and can be very dangerous if it is not properly managed. Eclampsia is associated with the second half of pregnancy and normal treatment includes the early delivery of the baby, together with medication to control the hypertension. There is, therefore, no conflict between the treatment of the mother and the survival of the baby. Neither can there be any absolute guarantees for the life of the mother or the child, because in medicine as in life, outcomes are not always as might reasonably be anticipated.

4. Complications due to Severe Bleeding or Infection

Infection or severe bleeding in the womb obviously places both the mother and the baby at risk. If the pregnancy is sufficiently advanced, the baby will be delivered and the mother will be treated immediately and there is a good prospect of saving both lives. If the pregnancy is not that far advanced, the mother has to be treated without delay for the infection or the haemorrhage. The death of the foetus as a side effect of treatment is foreseen but not intended. Since it is not intended, it is neither illegal nor immoral. If the doctor were to directly target the unborn, that would be different, but there is no medical reason for doing so.

5. Suicide Ideation

Finally, we must address the question of the risk of suicide in the case of women who may be depressed or anxious during pregnancy. A woman might consider suicide because of a pregnancy but, if her life is at risk it is from herself not from the child in her womb. The appropriate response to the mother’s crisis is to treat her depression or anxiety, through counselling or medication. Abortion, even if it could be morally justified, is not a treatment for depression. The evidence actually points to its being, in its own right, a cause of depression.

Neither the Church nor the state prohibits medical treatment which is intended to save life, even if it is not possible to save both lives, provided only that no life is disregarded or deliberately ended. Ultimately the practical decision on the day has to be a medical one. Much emphasis was placed in the Savita Halappanaver case on the fear of doctors that they might be charged if they performed a procedure which resulted in the death of the unborn. This was something of a red herring, because sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act (which have since been repealed) still applied at the time, and the law could not convict a doctor unless it were proven that he or she acted with the “intent to procure a miscarriage”, a deliberate abortion.

In Ireland, without abortion, and thanks to the quality of medical care, we have had, for many years, one of the lowest levels in the world of maternal death. Good quality medical care has always been and still remains one of the best ways of promoting a culture of life. Abortion is not only immoral because the Church says so; it is medical malpractice, because there is no medical condition for which it is a treatment, let alone a cure.

Life-Limiting Conditions

Tests during pregnancy sometimes show that a baby in the womb is seriously ill and doctors believe that the baby’s chances of survival are very limited. Two examples of such situations are “anencephaly”, in which there is a failure of the brain and the top of the skull to form properly and bilateral renal agenesis (in which neither of the baby’s kidneys has formed).

The use of words like “fatal” or “lethal” imply that there is some clarity about the outcome and that death is imminent and inevitable. The reality is that every case is different and that, some babies will die before birth, and others will live for just a few hours, while some will live for significantly longer.

While it is obviously very distressing for a woman to know that the baby she is carrying is very seriously ill, foetal abnormalities do not of themselves constitute a threat to the life or health of the mother. By contrast, many parents of children born with life-threatening conditions speak of how important it was for them to have the chance to care for their child until death naturally occurred. Others have spoken about their joy in discovering after birth that, while the child had serious health issues, the prognosis was actually better than they had originally been given to understand. The best thing I can suggest is that you listen to their own stories and you can do so on the web-site “”. To journey with another person who is seriously ill, can be both a very painful experience and a great privilege, whatever their age or condition.

From an ethical point of view, the situation of a child with a life-threatening illness is quite similar to that of an adult in the advanced stages of motor-neurone disease. If abortion were to be considered acceptable in the case of unborn children with life-limiting conditions, then we would have to accept, logically, that euthanasia would also be the norm for any person in the advanced stages of Motor-Neurone disease, Parkinson’s, or indeed cancer. By contrast, the response of a civilised society is to offer palliative care which includes, warmth, tenderness, nutrition and hydration, as well as the appropriate management of pain. One of the particular challenges facing parents of unborn children with life-limiting conditions is that there is only one neo-natal hospice in the whole of Ireland to respond to their needs. The promotion of a culture of life would include a greater provision of neonatal-hospice services, to support parents in caring for their sick children until natural death. This is something towards which we can and should all work.



Pregnancy following Rape

Rape has nothing to do with love; it is an abuse of power and an act of violence. A child conceived following rape is a person and, morally speaking, a subject of rights, including that most fundamental of all rights, the right to life. It goes without saying that it is not easy for a woman to welcome a child conceived in this way, but the child is very definitely not the aggressor.

It is very easy for society to respond to crisis pregnancy by proposing abortion as a solution. It may even seem like the compassionate thing to do. But to abort a child because of the circumstances of her conception is simply an extension of the reality that children in our society often suffer the consequences of failure or criminal behaviour on the part of one of their parents. I should have thought that any civilised society would particularly want to protect children under such circumstances.

Promoting a Culture of Life involves a willingness to be present, to listen and, perhaps, even to become a focus for a woman’s anger which, however irrational, is perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. In that way, both mother and child can be supported.


Promoting a Culture of Life

Pope John Paul wrote extensively about the Culture of Life and commented that “today we too find ourselves in the midst of a dramatic conflict between the “culture of death” and the “culture of life”.[viii]

He goes on to say that, promoting the Gospel of Life

“involves making clear all the consequences of this Gospel. These can be summed up as follows: human life, as a gift of God, is sacred and inviolable. For this reason procured abortion and euthanasia are absolutely unacceptable. Not only must human life not be taken, but it must be protected with loving concern. The meaning of life is found in giving and receiving love, and in this light human sexuality and procreation reach their true and full significance. Love also gives meaning to suffering and death; despite the mystery which surrounds them, they can become saving events. Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development. Society as a whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life. 

To be truly a people at the service of life we must propose these truths constantly and courageously from the very first proclamation of the Gospel, and thereafter in catechesis, in the various forms of preaching, in personal dialogue and in all educational activity. Teachers, catechists and theologians have the task of emphasizing the anthropological reasons upon which respect for every human life is based. In this way, by making the newness of the Gospel of life shine forth, we can also help everyone discover in the light of reason and of personal experience how the Christian message fully reveals what man is and the meaning of his being and existence. We shall find important points of contact and dialogue also with non- believers, in our common commitment to the establishment of a new culture of life.[ix]

Something which is everyone’s responsibility often ends up being the task of nobody in particular. People, unfortunately, seem prepared to wait and see what someone else will do. The promotion of a culture of life is the responsibility of every member of society, parents and politicians, teachers, doctors and nurses, friends and family members. We need to be talking to one another about this. In particular, as we approach a general election, we need to be talking to candidates on the streets and on the doorsteps. Last Spring, when the government was pushing through the Children and Family Relations Act, I wrote to every elected member of the Oireachtas in any constituency that touches on the territory of the Diocese of Elphin. I asked them to consider that it was irresponsible to introduce the possibility of the donation of embryos, without any restrictions as to storage, disposal or use of embryos for research. I had one acknowledgement; the others did not respond in any way. As Jack Charleton used to say “we have to put them under pressure”.

I must follow that by saying that all our pro-life activities must be respectful of the people who disagree with us. To be respectful means that we engage with their arguments rather than seeking to undermine them as people. To respect people, of course, does not mean that we have to agree with them just for the sake of being nice.

We can no longer take it for granted that the people around us would share our faith in the Gospel of Life. We can no longer assume either that people understand what the Church teaches. In spite of the promotion of information about sex, there is still an amazing lack of understanding about the real facts of life. Promoting the Culture of Life is about all of these thing but, it is also nourished time and again, by the prayerful awareness of “the love that God has lavished on us”, but letting us be called his Children.



[1]               Pope Francis Misericordiae Vultus (Bull of Induction for the Jubilee Year)

[2]               1 Jn. 3

[3]               Cf. Luke 10: 25-37

[4]              Casey, Tom, SJ. ‘The creative and destructive power of words – sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will really hurt me’. Address delivered at St. Patrick’s College, Mayooth. 5th Nov. 2015

[5]               Cf  Brown, Loretto. The Campaign to Legalise Abortion. Abortion Now. Dublin: LEARN, 1983

[vi]              Cf. Hesketh, Tom, The Second Partitioning of Ireland. Dublin: Brandsma Press, 1990

[vii]             HIQA. Patient Safety Report.

[viii]             Pope John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae.  Rome: Libreria Editrice vaticana, 1995, #50

[ix]              Ibid., # 80