On the 25th of May Ireland will hold a referendum on whether or not to repeal the 8th amendment, otherwise known as the ProLife amendment which is responsible for banning abortion in Ireland under virtually all circumstances. The amendment was added in 1983, and like all amendments to the Irish constitution, it was preceded by a referendum where 67 % of voters voted in favor. At the time, the amendment didn’t actually make any great difference as abortion was already illegal and had been illegal since before Ireland’s independence. The point of the constitutional amendment was to stop the courts from doing what they had done in the US less than a decade earlier, and twist existing laws into allowing abortion. It was a smart move since Ireland, like the US, has long struggled with judicial activism. The 8th amendment tied the hands of the courts as it very clearly states that
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.
Since the amendment was passed, there have been several attempts at repealing it. Until now, they’ve all failed miserably. However, the referendum on the 25th does stand a real risk of passing. First, how did we come to this? Isn’t Ireland a Catholic country?
To understand how a country where over 80 % of the population identify as catholic could even come close to legalizing abortion, we have to understand recent church history. Most people are aware of the child sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church, but nowhere did it have as great of an effect as it did in Ireland, where the Church has been the most trusted institution ever since the Great Famine in the 1840’s. This scandal, combined with the church’s attempt to cover it up and failure to compensate victims, really rocked Ireland to the core.
What made it worse was that this scandal blew open during the financial crisis, which hit Ireland much harder than it hit the US. The state proved itself useless at protecting the population from the greed of foreign and domestic speculators, and trust in politicians plummeted to levels never seen before. Then, at the same time, the child abuse scandal happens and it becomes clear to many people that neither the state nor the church – the two pillars of Irish society – can be trusted. So who can you trust?
It is hard to underestimate the trauma that this caused to the Irish psyche. When I came to Ireland in 2009, my university didn’t even have a ProChoice society – they tried to get one running, but couldn’t even find the minimum 15 (or so) members necessary to get accreditation! We did have a very active ProLife society however. I remember telling a female flatmate of mine about Sweden’s abortion laws (that allow abortion up to22 weeks into the pregnancy) and having her recoil in horror and ask “How could you!?”. She was far from an observant catholic, but she recognized the atrocity that is abortion on demand.
However, the austerity policies enforced on Ireland by the European Union led to a rise in support for the extreme left, not least in universities. I still remember the great marches of students shouting “No cuts! No fees! No Fianna Fail TDs!” (Fianna Fail being the governing party at the time; a TD is the Irish equivalent of a member of Congress).
As growth returned, austerity eventually ended, but the left-winged menace did not. Instead, they turned their focus onto social issues. They had three great advantages: First of all, Ireland’s socially conservative party and traditional ally of the Catholic Church Fianna Fail had been decimated in the election of 2011, losing 2/3rds of their voters from the previous election. FF went from being the powerhouse of Irish politics, to being the third biggest party. Second of all, Irish people were ready and eager for a fresh start, and the Catholic Church and its dogmas just seemed like a part of the country’s troubled past, an image that the left was all too happy to strengthen any chance they got. Finally, while the US has had a culture war going back at least 40 years that has produced seasoned and experienced debaters on both sides, most Irish christians never in their wildest imagination thought that they would ever have to defend traditional marriage and other social issues. As such, when the left began their campaign to amend the constitution to allow same-sex marriage, the Christian right in Ireland was woefully unprepared.
In my honest opinion, speaking as someone who supports traditional marriage, they made absolute fools of themselves in 2015. Most Christians acted as if they had never met an atheist before, basing all their arguments on Biblical doctrine that of course were convincing to me, but not to a country that was going through the worst crisis of faith in its history. The pro-traditional marriage campaign was a disorganized disgrace that ended with a tragic but well-deserved landslide loss, with 62 % of the country supporting gay marriage.
For a long time, this year’s ProLife campaign looked sure to be a repeat of the 2015 disaster. Lately however, Irish ProLifers have stepped up their game and the polls are rapidly closing with just two weeks to go. There is a lot to learn here for ProLifers all around the world, which I will cover in my next article. Thank you for reading.