World

Ireland’s Momentous Referendum on the Human Rights of the Unborn

Demonstrators take part in a Pro-Life rally ahead of a May 25 referendum on abortion law in Dublin, Ireland, May 12, 2018. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
Our world is at a turning point. Change is inevitable, but we can still determine the nature of the change.

I’m a historian who is obsessed with turning points, with how and why changes occur in time. I spend most of my time dealing with transitions that took place five centuries ago, at the end of the Middle Ages, when the world became “modern.” But one news item has caught my eye and diverted my attention to the present.

Ireland is one of the few Western nations in which the rights of the unborn are still legally protected. The Irish constitution’s article 40.3.3, its Eighth Amendment, now up for repeal, reads as follows: “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.”

Debate over abortion is intense and divisive, and there is little middle ground. The key questions, even when not explicitly stated, are “When does human life begin?” and “To what extent can any fetus can be considered a full human being, with rights equal to those of its mother?” One can slice and dice the issue in many different ways, but the bottom line always remains the same: Is the ending of human life justifiable at any stage of development, under any circumstances? This essential question is also at the heart of all current debates about euthanasia and capital punishment.

Not very long ago, here in the United States, slavery was an unpleasant issue, divisive enough to plunge the nation into a civil war. The bottom line in debates about slavery was not exactly the same as in our debates over abortion, since the key question was not about when life begins or about who has the right to end any life, but there was a parallel questioning of the full humanity of some people and of the extent to which they could have the same rights as others. In essence, those who defended slavery in the 19th century denied full rights to the slaves, just as those who defend abortion deny full rights to the fetus.

Nowadays, a century and a half after slavery was abolished, most Americans, and most civilized peoples, consider it inconceivably evil for any human being to claim ownership of another’s life. Today, it is the abolitionists who are hailed as heroes, as true progressives and champions of human rights. Yet in their own day, when they began to raise their voices against prevailing opinion, abolitionists were reviled and legally silenced through gag rules and legislation. Sometimes they were attacked by mobs, as happened to Frederick Douglass in Boston in 1860.

Slavery was “a positive good,” according to John Calhoun, Yale-educated, the seventh vice president of the United States. Many of Calhoun’s supporters saw those who challenged slavery as troublemakers deserving to be silenced. In the end, the troublemakers won.

All such muffling of debate is intrinsically unhealthy for any democracy.

How did that happen? How were minds changed? How, in a culture’s consciousness, was slavery transformed from “a positive good” to a monstrous evil? Through debate, through constant arguing, and through appealing for the full legal recognition of free speech and of the common rights that should be granted to all human beings. In the United States it took a war to finally end slavery in the southern states, but throughout the rest of North and South America it was debate, the constant exchange of ideas, that turned the tide against slavery, making its reprehensible nature impossible to deny.

Unfortunately, debate is now being stifled in Ireland in various ways, as is bound to happen when the arguing gets intense and the margin between the “yes” and “no” votes appears slim and fuzzy. Even worse, foreign multinational entities such as Google and Facebook have entered the fray by refusing to accept any advertising related to the May 25 referendum, pro or con, raising concerns about attempts to rig the vote in favor of those who want to repeal the Eighth Amendment. All such muffling of debate is intrinsically unhealthy for any democracy. It obstructs the advancement of human rights.

Ultimately, it is the issue of human rights that makes this Irish referendum so potentially significant and of such interest to a historian of the distant past such as me. I escaped from a 20th-century totalitarian state where speaking one’s mind is a crime and where human rights are trampled in innumerable ways. I was exposed to the brutal reality of the slippery slope of ethics — that is, I learned firsthand of the speed with which human rights can slide away from us, with a deafening whoosh. First you take away one right by denying that anyone is entitled to it. Then you can take away another right, and another, and another, until all rights slip into oblivion in the blink of an eye.

It may be useful to keep the abolitionists in mind this week. Something self-educated Abraham Lincoln said to the 164th Ohio Regiment in 1864 applies to what is happening in Ireland now. “There is more involved in this contest than is realized by every one,” he said. “There is involved in this struggle the question whether your children and my children shall enjoy the privileges we have enjoyed.”

NOW WATCH: ‘New Trump Administration Rule to Cut Planned Parenthood Funding’

Carlos Eire is the T. L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.

Most Popular

Why Trump’s Losing

President Trump pulled an inside straight to win in 2016, and now he needs another one. The good news for Trump is that his approval rating has stopped falling recently. The bad news is that it has stabilized in the low 40s. Election-watcher Harry Enten points out that no president since Harry Truman has won ... Read More

Why Trump’s Losing

President Trump pulled an inside straight to win in 2016, and now he needs another one. The good news for Trump is that his approval rating has stopped falling recently. The bad news is that it has stabilized in the low 40s. Election-watcher Harry Enten points out that no president since Harry Truman has won ... Read More
U.S.

A Stay-at-Home Mom on Her Reasons for Leaving Portland

While covering events (see here and here) in Portland, Ore., National Review writer Luther Abel sat down with Joanna -- a college-educated, stay-at-home mom and now Trump voter -- who feels it is no longer safe or healthy to live there. They discussed the change that has happened in the city politically, the ... Read More
U.S.

A Stay-at-Home Mom on Her Reasons for Leaving Portland

While covering events (see here and here) in Portland, Ore., National Review writer Luther Abel sat down with Joanna -- a college-educated, stay-at-home mom and now Trump voter -- who feels it is no longer safe or healthy to live there. They discussed the change that has happened in the city politically, the ... Read More
U.S.

Baby Please Come Back, Says Andrew Cuomo

Then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg famously described New York City in 2003 as a “luxury product,” and therefore priced accordingly. The price hasn’t changed, except to go up slightly — taxes, rents, everything. But few would argue that the product New York offers remains first-rate. The theaters are closed. The ... Read More
U.S.

Baby Please Come Back, Says Andrew Cuomo

Then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg famously described New York City in 2003 as a “luxury product,” and therefore priced accordingly. The price hasn’t changed, except to go up slightly — taxes, rents, everything. But few would argue that the product New York offers remains first-rate. The theaters are closed. The ... Read More
Law & the Courts

New York’s Lawless NRA Lawsuit

The latest bananas news from the banana republic that is the State of New York: The attorney general, a political enemy of the National Rifle Association, is seeking to have the advocacy organization legally dissolved. The pretext is financial corruption and self-dealing on the part of the NRA’s ... Read More
Law & the Courts

New York’s Lawless NRA Lawsuit

The latest bananas news from the banana republic that is the State of New York: The attorney general, a political enemy of the National Rifle Association, is seeking to have the advocacy organization legally dissolved. The pretext is financial corruption and self-dealing on the part of the NRA’s ... Read More
Elections

Joe Biden’s Authoritarian VP Finalist

Last year, Senator Kamala Harris may have become the first presidential candidate in history to laugh derisively at the idea that the Constitution limits what a president can do. When former Vice President Joe Biden said that her plan for gun control by executive fiat didn’t pass constitutional muster, she ... Read More
Elections

Joe Biden’s Authoritarian VP Finalist

Last year, Senator Kamala Harris may have become the first presidential candidate in history to laugh derisively at the idea that the Constitution limits what a president can do. When former Vice President Joe Biden said that her plan for gun control by executive fiat didn’t pass constitutional muster, she ... Read More