Ireland's Catholic leader says abortion referendum 'obliterated rights of unborn'

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland has said the result of Friday's abortion referendum 'obliterated the rights' of the unborn.

Archbishop Eamon Martin told RTE radio he was 'very deeply saddened' by the vote, which saw a two-thirds majority in favour of repealing the controversial Eighth Amendment to the constitution. The amendment prohibited abortion in almost all circumstances and is set to be replaced by abortion on demand up to 12 weeks.

Ireland's prime minister Leo Varadkar celebrated the result.Reuters

Martin thanked those who had campaigned for a 'No' vote and said the pro-life movement in Ireland was more important than ever as a result of the vote.

He said on Sunday during his homily in Knock: 'The result of Friday's referendum on the Eighth Amendment confirms that we are living in a new time and a changed culture for Ireland. For the Church it is indeed a missionary time, a time for new evangelisation.'

According to Crux, despite his disappointment at the result of the vote, he said: 'This is our time for living. This is our time for believing. This is our time for mission and teaching the truth of the gospel.'

Quoting Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, he said the 'defence of the innocent unborn' needs to be 'clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demanding of love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development'.

Speaking at St Patrick's College in Maynooth, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said: 'The Irish Church after the referendum must renew its commitment to support life. The Church is called to be pro-life however not just in words and statements and manifestos but to be pro-life in deeds, by being a Church which reflects the loving care of Jesus for human life at any stage.'

The vote in the Republic of Ireland has led to pressure on the British government to introduce similiar measures in the North. Prime Minister Theresa May has so far faced down calls from parliamentarians to do so and bring its rules into line with rest of the UK.

Penny Mordaunt, Britain's women and equalities minister, said the victory to legalise abortion should now bring change north of the Irish border.

'A historic and great day for Ireland and a hopeful one for Northern Ireland,' Mordaunt said. 'That hope must be met.'

A spokeswoman for May said on Sunday changing the rules should only be undertaken by a government in Northern Ireland, which has been without a devolved executive since January last year after a power-sharing agreement collapsed.

May tweeted on Sunday to 'congratulate the Irish people on their decision' but she made no mention of what the result would mean for Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe with even rape and fatal foetal abnormality not considered legal grounds for a termination. And unlike other parts of the United Kingdom, abortions are banned apart from when the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

The penalty for undergoing or performing an unlawful abortion is life imprisonment.

Since the collapse of a power sharing administration in Northern Ireland, British officials have been taking major decisions in the region and this means the government could legislate directly despite health being a devolved issue.

But any moves to change the law could destabilise the British government by antagonising the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party, which May depends on for her parliamentary majority.

More than 130 members of Britain's parliament, including lawmakers in the ruling Conservative party, are prepared to back an amendment to a new domestic violence bill to allow abortions in Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times newspaper reported.

Northern Ireland's elected assembly has the right to bring its abortion laws in line with the rest of Britain, but voted against doing so in February 2016 and the assembly has not sat since the devolved government collapsed in January 2017.

Additional reporting by Reuters.