Ireland Will Vote on Abortion Next Year — Social Conservatives Play Defense

Prime Minister Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of Ireland (Reuters photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne)
The decline of the Catholic Church as the main bulwark of civic culture in Ireland tells much of the story.

In 1989, the eminent Irish historian J. J. Lee described the 1983 passage of the constitutional amendment outlawing abortion in Ireland as a “vulgar farce” owing to the fact that abortion was already illegal and not in danger of becoming legal “in the foreseeable future as a result of public demand.”

Is 30 years unforeseeable? I don’t think it is for social conservatives, who often know what lies at the bottom of the slope they are sliding down.

A little over two years ago, Ireland became the first nation on the planet to legalize same-sex marriage by popular referendum. In 2018, it may become one of the last European countries to legalize abortion, using the same means. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be discussing with his cabinet this week potential dates in May and June of next year for a referendum on revising the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution, which legally proscribes abortion except in cases of “real and substantial risk” to the mother’s life. The date in late spring is not a surprise either, as Irish politicians want what will be an acrimonious national debate concluded before Pope Francis arrives for the World Meeting of Families in August.

Anyone who, like me, is unfortunate enough to be familiar with the banalities of the Irish press can almost dictate the editorials clacking on about how a new (and better) pope is arriving in a new (and better) Ireland, so different from the grey and dim place that John Paul II knew in the 1980s. Blah blah, blarney.

Well, one can almost dictate them. The outcome isn’t certain. Despite enormous pressure from NGOs, various European human-rights bodies, journalists, and corporate boards, Irish politicians mostly do not want really to discuss the abortion issue in any depth. They just want the whole thing to be over and done with. It is possible that they will draw up a referendum that fails to pass and just enflames Ireland’s ongoing culture wars.

Ireland is subject to the same contradictory moral impulses on abortion that are found almost everywhere in the Western world. Public polling seems to show that most Irish people want to change the eighth amendment to allow abortion in a limited number of circumstances. Most people report being against most abortions. But, as almost everywhere else in the Western world, social conservatives in Ireland are an exhausted political force and have basically resigned themselves to being losers. As we approach 2018, the incoherence of the Irish public’s views on this question are going to be revealed and probed in Irish and world media. It will be an unpleasant and irritating experience for the public and the activists trying to herd them toward one position or another.

Anti-abortion activists in the United States and around the world often point to Ireland as having restrictive laws against abortion but being nonetheless a recognizably modern, welcoming Western country. Ireland comes in sixth in the World Economic Forum’s rating of countries with the lowest gender gap on income. That’s significantly better than Poland (38), Chile (70), or Malta (108) — comparably rich nations that have restrictive abortion laws. But truthfully, Ireland’s currently restrictive regime has survived as long as it has only because Irish women who are determined to get abortions cross the Irish Sea and get them in the United Kingdom.

One major theme of the next year’s coverage of the abortion referendum will be the continued fall of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The evidence seems to show that Ireland’s restrictive laws do lower the rate of abortion. And Ireland has maintained a slightly higher-than-replacement birthrate through most of the past three decades, even as some its European peers have seen their fertility rates plunge.

One major theme of the next year’s coverage will be the continued fall of the Catholic Church in Ireland. In the same sweeping essay in which he said the eighth amendment was a vulgar farce, Lee presciently noted that the Catholic Church in Ireland was “perhaps now the main bulwark of the civic culture.” He went on: “It is the very opportunism of the traditional value system that leaves religion as the main barrier between reasonably civilized society and the untrammeled predatory instincts of individual and pressure-group selfishness, curbed only by the power of rival predators.” He pointed out that in the 1980s there was already evidence of a sharp decline in religious observance. He added, “If religion were to no longer fife its historic civilizing mission as a substitute for internalized values of civic responsibility, the consequences for the country no less than for the church could be lethal.”

Lee was correct that the Catholic Church in Ireland was extremely vulnerable in the 1980s, and that its retreat from civic life would leave the nation with something less solid and satisfying. It is commonplace to say that the moral and criminal scandals of the Church robbed it of its moral authority. In truth, many Irish people wanted to be rid of what they saw as its stultifying grip on Irish life, and the scandals provided a good reason to see it off. The sudden influx of prosperity during the late 1990s and early 2000s also aided in creating the story of “Ireland then, Ireland now.” The Church, still technically in charge of the vast majority of Irish schools, has mostly kept peace by adapting itself to the new values of Ireland, the ones that can be safely advertised in multinational corporate slogans.

Perhaps the framers of Ireland’s eighth amendment sensed with Lee the weakness in the Church, and the likely ascendance of liberal values of personal autonomy. As in every other Western country, any moral case that relies on people’s accepting unchosen personal obligations to each other is dead on arrival. The moral and legal case against abortion is not just failing to persuade, it is almost incomprehensible to more and more people.

Even if Ireland keeps a relatively restrictive legal regime in place, or narrowly maintains the status quo, the values shift is still underway. In its social mores and legal codes, Ireland is moving away from a “natural family” understanding to the “contractual family.” Even if pro-lifers win a temporary political victory in Ireland next summer, they are still losing the culture.


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