Maria Steen is at the forefront of the pro-life campaign in Ireland, and she is urging a No vote in the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment tomorrow on May 25th. She is a spokeswoman for the Iona institute and mother of four. Steen has featured on national televised debates such as the Claire Byrne Show and Pat Kenny’s Tonight programme.
How has it been as a leading figure in the No campaign up until now?
Well it has been challenging, but also interesting to see how the campaign has developed. Obviously the vast majority of people who are voting no would consider themselves pro-life. But what I think is interesting in the last few weeks is how we have seen certain people who consider themselves pro-choice in certain circumstances joining the No Campaign.
They realise what’s at stake here and what the government is proposing here is so extreme. The idea that you would strip the unborn child of all constitutional rights and leave those children open to the mercy of the Oireachtas, I think a lot of people feel very uncomfortable about that.
What do you make of the proposed government scheme? Where do you feel it has gone too far?
Well we are being asked to vote on the constitutional amendment that’s proposed, in the first instance. It’s true to say that we’re not voting on legislation, we’re voting on a change to the constitution.
People need to know that the reason we’re being asked to change the constitution and take away the right to life of the child in the womb is in order to make way for a right to kill.
If it is repealed then the Oireachtas will legislate, and the government’s proposal that they’ve put forward just for starters, is in my view a very wide-ranging abortion regime. They have claimed it is restrictive but it allows for abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, on vague mental health grounds like in the UK up to 6 months and up to birth where there is a likelihood that the baby might die before or shortly after birth and also in an emergency situation.
However that emergency situation also includes mental health grounds, and again referring to an immediate risk of serious harm to the mental health of the mother, which is a very vague term. To allow abortion on that ground right up until birth is in my view, and I think in the view of most people in this country, an extreme position to take.
Has the government proposed any method of assessing the mental health of expectant mothers?
None at all. Presumably it will be a matter of clinical judgment for the doctor involved. Now under the health ground, which is similar to ground C in the UK, it will be the decision of two doctors, but in the emergency situation it will be only one doctor making the call to assess if there is an immediate risk to the mental health of the mother.
In the absence of any definition of what serious harm to the mental health of the mother means, it is left wide open to interpretation. So one clinician might say that it would only cover the most completely serious circumstances but another might take a completely different view. All that’s required in the legislation is that it is a reasonable opinion formed in good faith.
Looking at the wider question, why do you think the public is being asked to change the constitution at this particular moment in time?
Interesting question, I think what is clear is that the lobbying that has led up to this referendum campaign was not a grassroots effort. It was what some have termed an ‘astroturf’ campaign. Which is to say a campaign led by seriously well-funded lobbyists, like Amnesty International.
Lobbyists working from within Ireland? Or perhaps receiving money from abroad?
Exactly, we know that Amnesty has been in receipt of funds, illegal money, from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. SIPO (Standards in Public Office Commission) has said the money was illegal, yet they’ve refused to give it back. The Minister for Health who is promoting this constitutional change and legislating for abortion on demand is happy to campaign alongside an organisation that has been found to have taken illegal money. I find that to be quite astonishing.
Have you speculated on the reasons why international lobbyists such as Amnesty and the Open Society Foundation have an interest in seeing abortion legalised in Ireland?
I’m not sure what motivates people personally to push for wide ranging abortion, but what I can say is that when you look around the world, and particularly in the Western world, there is undoubtedly a financial interest behind this. When we look to the UK and the US we see abortion clinics and abortion providers making money from this practice of aborting little children. That’s one thing I think voters need to think about. Simon Harris has been careful to say that this will be ‘doctor-led’, it will be ‘GP-led’.
As in no specific clinics for abortions?
As in no private clinics. I think this proposal, apart from being morally bankrupt, is also completely unworkable on a practical level. For instance, the country’s GPs, who he didn’t consult beforehand, have objected to this. They are expected by Simon Harris to be the providers of the abortion pill.
We are being told by Yes campaigners that there are women taking these pills unsupervised at home. I’ve heard graphic descriptions of women bleeding in their bedrooms or bathrooms, but the thing is if a doctor or GP is the one who dispenses the pill and sends a woman home, she’s still going to be in a bathroom or a bedroom by herself bleeding.
It sidesteps the moral question of what kind of healthcare a GP is expected to give. Is it to dispense medication which is intended to end the life of an innocent child? No reason has to be given, there is no threat to the woman’s life, these women are not on the cusp of dying, nor there is a real and substantial risk to these women of dying. We’re talking about healthy babies of healthy mothers. And GPs, who are supposed to be in the business of healing and caring are instead dispensing medication to women to end the lives of their children.
It’s also unworkable because GPs don’t have ultrasounds in their surgeries. Neither do most have facilities to supervise a woman if something goes wrong. Very many GPs would also object to being the ones who facilitate abortions, so I think it’s only a matter of time, if the referendum is carried, before we see abortion clinics opening on the streets of our towns and cities.
It is interesting to note that the Health Minister Simon Harris was elected on a Pro-life platform. How are we to hold our politicians to account if they change their opinions once they have gotten into office?
This is entirely the point of why it is so important that every individual’s fundamental rights are protected by the Constitution. That all of our rights are protected from the tyranny of a legislative power that can change their minds and go on ‘journeys’, as we’ve seen the politicians doing.
People say that the constitution isn’t the place to deal with abortion, and they’re right, there’s no mention of abortion in the constitution at all. There is no constitutional ban on abortion, despite what Leo Varadkar has said. What there is is a constitutional recognition of the right to life of the child in the womb. It follows from that, if you have the right to life then you have the right not to be summarily killed, but that’s not the same thing as saying there’s a constitutional ban on abortion.
We’ve seen politician’s change their minds, go on ‘journeys’, and Leo Varadkar himself has said that he can’t tie the hands of any future Oireachtas. So as bad as the government’s proposal is at the moment, the legislation they’ve put on the table, it could get worse. Without any constitutional provision there protecting the child in the womb, there would be nothing to stop them doing that. Now some people have said that if you don’t like what politicians are proposing you can always next election you just don’t re-elect them. But that doesn’t solve the problem of legislation passing, and in the meantime how many children have to lose their lives before the next election?
When we look around the world, and you see this particularly in the States, once a very permissive law is brought in it is really hard to go back from that. But in our case, removing it from the constitution creates other problems. First of all, I haven’t come across a case where a human right has been removed from a constitution in any other jurisdiction. Now constitutions are amended all the time but as I say, I haven’t come across a case where a human right has actually been taken out of a constitution. Some lawyers fear that because this isn’t just repeal simpliciter, this is repeal with an amendment to the Constitution, the Eighth Amendment will be replaced by a provision that would allow for the Oireachtas to legislate for the termination of pregnancy.
Now putting those words into a section of the constitution that deals with fundamental rights, in the view of some lawyers this could be interpreted by the courts as meaning that the termination of pregnancy is a fundamental right. In the absence of there being any protection for the unborn child in the Constitution, you could have a situation where restrictive legislation would actually be found to be unconstitutional. In other words if a woman has a right, a fundamental human right to an abortion, and the baby has no right to life, any restriction on her ability to access abortion in any circumstance could be found to be unconstitutional.
So there is at the base of it, a question of what is a fundamental right. The public have to wonder which is more fundamental, the right to life or the right to procure an abortion?
Well there is no recognised right, in international law, to an abortion. Certainly in this country there is obviously no such right. One of the interesting things about the Eighth Amendment and the way it is worded is very clear, although this was adopted by the people by popular vote in 1983, the right to life was not conferred on the child in the womb by positive law. It was recognised and acknowledged as being a right that was antecedent to all positive law.
Now something interesting has happened recently, with the supreme court judgment in M v Minister for Justice. The court was obviously under pressure to get that judgment out in time, and they did so before this referendum. They have clarified the supreme court’s view, which is to say that they have rejected a natural law interpretation of the Constitution and instead have gone for a positivist approach.
This means that unless a child’s rights are recognised in black and white in the constitution, they simply don’t exist. It’s a really stark choice that we’re left with. We’re told all the time that this is not a black and white issue, well the government has made it a black and white issue. It’s either the Eighth Amendment or nothing for the child in the womb.
What did you make of the ban on online ads by Google and Facebook leading up to the referendum, on the grounds of ‘integrity’?
My view is that it was an interference with the integrity of the referendum, and the ability of Irish people to canvass other Irish people and other Irish voters. Once again this was big business, foreign interests, trying to act as if they were a government source saying what was permissible and what was not. We had no problem with Google banning foreign ads as Facebook had done, that’s fine. But as regards us being prevented from canvassing through ads to Irish voters, I think that did amount to interference in the democratic process, and I think it was very wrong.
Would you happen to have any idea why that decision was taken?
Well it was interesting to note the reaction between the Yes and No sides. We said that it harmed us more than the Yes side because of course because the traditional mainstream media is obviously favouring the Yes side. There isn’t one party in the Oireachtas that opposes repeal. So we’re very much the underdog in this debate, and we said that one way we really had to communicate with voters was through social media and try to directly contact people to get our message across. So this ban really amounted to shutting down of our right to freedom of speech and expression and obviously didn’t affect the Yes campaign in the same way.
Why? Because as you saw, they all came out and welcomed it, so they had no problem with it because they have the airwaves anyway, they have all the support in the Oireachtas and establishment Ireland supports them, so they’re in no difficulty there.
Do you find it hard when people get personal? Do you receive a lot hate from people online or in the national media?
Yes I do, and obviously nobody likes it but as time goes on you get used to it, you’re better able to brush it off, but every so often somebody says something. For instance, during the week there was a man who called for me to be raped. Whilst that was obviously very upsetting, what I also found to be particularly shocking was that no repeal campaigner criticised the statement of that man. Those who are campaigning for a Yes vote claim they are pro-woman, yet when there is a call for somebody to be raped because they’re a No voter it seems that anything goes.