Save the Eighth

Demonstrators at an abortion law rally in Dublin, Ireland, September 30, 2018. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

There are many things to admire in Ireland’s written constitution. Most especially, the text includes, since a popular referendum in 1983, the Eighth Amendment: “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.” This is the most advanced law protecting the life of unborn children in the Western world. It is also, in its way, beautiful. In the controlling Irish language, it protects “na mbeo gan breith,” or “the living without birth.” We urge the Irish people to retain it when a referendum aimed at its repeal is presented to them this May.

Ireland’s government, most of its media class, and a number of NGOs are campaigning to erase the Eighth and allow the Dail to legislate to make abortion available. The law they are proposing to enact afterward is modeled on legislation found in the United Kingdom. It includes an unlimited right to terminate a pregnancy in the first twelve weeks of gestation, and then an expansive health exception that would effectively allow the termination of any pregnancy at any time. The choice before the Irish people is not just to make abortion legal in Ireland, but to make it common there.

The divide between pro-life and pro-choice in Ireland runs through all its political parties. In practice, this means Ireland’s elite consensus among party leaders has been able to deprive the anti-abortion side of effective political representation. This was dramatized in the run-up to this referendum, when the leading elected figures in the two dominant parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, came forward, one by one, to abandon their previous nominally pro-life positions. It looked like choreography. And ultimately, it read as cowardice. There are exceptions, however. Two of the most eloquent advocates for retaining the Eighth are Peadar Tóibín and Carol Nolan from the left-leaning nationalist party, Sinn Fein. They may face party discipline for their stance. We commend them for their courage.

Ireland’s law against abortion has not produced the dystopia that pro-abortion activists conjure to gain consent. Ireland has one of the lowest gender-income gaps on earth, and it has outstanding statistics in maternal health. Although some Irish women who are determined to get an abortion do cross the Irish Sea to get one, the Eighth Amendment clearly lowers the rate of abortion overall, and Ireland stands in contrast to the rest of Western Europe, having consistently maintained a higher-than-replacement fertility rate. Irish people meet and interact with people whose lives were saved by the Eighth Amendment every single day.

Repeal of the Eighth will not end Ireland’s own version of the culture wars. In fact, it will come with a nasty backwash of secularism, as activists inevitably pressure religious health institutions to make the procedure more widely accessible, and demand that religious schools defend it as a social good. It will not exorcise the ghosts of Ireland’s sometimes unhappy past. It will not solve the problems of Irish society, as abortion is the most parsimonious and nasty thing a society can offer a woman as its all-purpose solution to a difficult pregnancy. Repealing the Eighth is a step backward on human rights.

The text of the Eighth only makes explicit a truth we all have a duty to recognize; that every society has an obligation to respect and nurture the bond between parents and their children, not to furnish the means of its destruction.

Finally, the attempt to repeal the Eighth is an exercise in national self-deception. The text of the Eighth only makes explicit a truth we all have a duty to recognize; that every society has an obligation to respect and nurture the bond between parents and their children, not to furnish the means of its destruction. This is why the text says that the state acknowledges the right to life; it does not claim that the state, or popular will, provides it. This being the case, the state cannot legitimately take it away. Every child killed in the womb is a being whose rights have been traduced. That would be true after “repeal” as well. Ireland’s people should retain the Eighth Amendment, in order that they may fulfill the promise of the Easter Proclamation of national independence to “cherish the children of the nation equally,” and to remain a witness to all the other nations on earth that they have a duty to do the same.


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