There are limits on what democrats “must” accept

Sometimes there’s a conflict between the majority will and human rights. That’s one reason there’s a need for such things as high courts and international courts: to adjudicate between them.

It can be alarming when legislators seem to be blankly unaware of this. Commonplace, but alarming.

Today in Ireland for instance.

Tanaiste Joan Burton has ruled out an abortion referendum being held in the lifetime of this Government.

Ms Burton was responding to an impassioned plea from Independent TD Catherine Murphy who said many women were suffering needlessly because the law on termination of pregnancy on medical grounds was too restrictive.

Deputy Murphy said the referendum to safeguard the right to life of the unborn child was voted in 1983 and the country had changed a lot in the 31 years since then.

“Tanaiste we need a referendum to change this,” Ms Murphy told the Dail.

The Tanaiste said both she and her party had urged rejection of the abortion amendment in 1983.

But she said as democrats everyone must accept the will of the people.

Not true. Suppose the will of the people is that all children of unmarried parents must be imprisoned from birth to the age of 18, as so many such children were in Ireland until very very recently? Is it true that democrats “must” accept that? No. It would be a gross violation of the rights of those children and of their parents, as it was in Ireland and elsewhere for many decades.

Also, Michael Nugent points outthe UN Human Rights Committee has just told Ireland that that argument is “totally unacceptable.”

…just this Tuesday, in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Committee had told Ireland that this was a “totally unacceptable” reason to deny Irish women their right to an abortion consistently with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland that human rights cannot be denied by a majority vote in Parliament or in a referendum, and that the whole point of international human rights law is to avoid the tyranny of the majority.

The UN told Ireland to withdraw that argument as a reason for denying Irish women abortions, and after a break in the session, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald did withdraw it. She accepted that “the will of the people” was not a justified reason to derogate from giving people their human rights under the ICCPR.

You know what else isn’t? The will of the bishops. Just saying.


  1. karmacat says

    The will of which people? Maybe only women should get to decide on this and especially leave out all the male bishops and priests

  2. Morgan says

    Quite aside from the point about majority rule vs fundamental rights, Burton’s response is a complete non-answer. Murphy’s argument was precisely that the will of the people now may not be the same as the will of the people then. Somehow it’s acceptable to have a referendum to amend the Constitution, but not to have another to repeal that amendment?

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