Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Medical Ethics in Ireland: A Decade of Change

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Medical Ethics in Ireland: A Decade of Change

Article excerpt

Dolores Dooley is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, University College, Cork, Ireland.

During the decade of the eighties, medical ethics moved from a niche of academic obscurity to forums of national debate in the Republic of Ireland. The culture has been searching vigorously for a moral discourse that will bridge the differences in ethical assumption so apparent today in the twenty-six counties of the Republic. Presuppositions about traditional Irish morality are being publicly reassessed in a way unprecedented since Independence from Britain in 1922.

The first forty years of Irish independence were notable for institutional continuity rather than change. A uniform, insular, religious interpretation of life was reinforced in homes, schools, pulpits, and the press. This culturally homogeneous Ireland fashioned the minds of all who came to maturity before 1960. The years from 1960 to 1980 were marked by tension between the predominantly religious ethos and gradual secularization that was more a consequence of the increasing complexity of Irish society than of any direct ideological pressures. What diminished was the preeminence of religious legitimations.

Since the mid-sixties the judiciary became an important agent of change, actively expanding the rights of individual citizens through review of legislation: striking down the law prohibiting the sale of contraceptives, expanding the light to marital privacy, clarifying rights of dependent spouses, and generally expanding women's fights. Ireland's entry into the European Economic Community in 1973 has accelerated economic, social, and legal changes in the Republic. For those wary of moral revisions, Ireland's membership in the EEC came to be perceived as a threat to national sovereignty, though the meaning and application of sovereignty were left unanalyzed. As an illustration of EEC pressure, in February 1981 the European Commission issued a controversial report containing fifty-five resolutions recommending that the Commission not pay regional or social funds to any government dragging its feet on the implementation of equal treatment and women's rights, urging that all EEC countries provide contraception and abortion services for women.

European politics were digging deeply to the roots of moral assumptions in the Republic. The cultural insularity of earlier decades would no longer be relied on to sustain a dominant moral ethos. By the early eighties it was apparent that the categories for moral discourse drawn from a more religiously homogeneous Ireland were no longer effective in negotiating the diversity of views-particularly in ethical matters, where the religious tradition had seemed unambiguous. The complex and emotive issue of abortion became a test case for Irish constitutional law, a measuring rod of social and moral changes and a challenge to Ireland's capacity to deal constructively with ethical polarizations that many argue had been present for decades but had not been publicly voiced.

Constitutional Rights for Fetal Life;

Until 1981 abortion was mentioned in public only to condemn it categorically. It is a procedure that does not taint Irish soil, thanks to the Offences against the Persons Act of 1861. Under section 58 of this Act, it is an offense if one unlawfully does anything with intent to procure a miscarriage. The punishment for the offense is imprisonment for life or any shorter term. When Belgium removed its legal prohibition in April 1990, Ireland became the only country in the EEC that still prohibits abortion. However, Ireland's prohibition does not accurately reflect the reality that, on conservative estimates, 4,000 Irishwomen from the Republic have abortions in Britain every year. Ireland has yet to confront the criticism that the country exports moral problems it chooses to repudiate. More fundamentally, Ireland faces the complex task of acknowledging the voices of minority positions on health care and other social issues such as divorce. …

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