America partly inspired the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s constitution. And so it is fitting that pro-life Americans should note its passing. Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court discovered a right to privacy in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut, an Irish supreme court, in 1974, discovered a previously unknown right to “family privacy” in the Irish constitution. Both worked to facilitate the sale or use of contraception. The Griswold precedent was important to deciding Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. Anti-abortion activists in Ireland could sense what was coming if they did not act.
And so they endeavored to run around their liberal judiciary by putting an explicit recognition of the right to life of an unborn child in their constitution. It was the only law in the Western world that fully articulated what committed pro-lifers believe: “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.” After an acrimonious public debate, the Eighth Amendment was passed in 1983, supported by 66.9 percent of Irish voters. This May that amendment was repealed by a nearly identical share of voters, 66.4 percent. In its place, a new text is provided under the heading “Fundamental Rights”: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.” In 35 years, Ireland’s social, economic, and political life had utterly transformed. This flip on the Eighth Amendment was only the latest evidence.
The scale of the result was a shock to many, even on the pro-repeal side. And it is a reality check for pro-lifers worldwide, who have felt for a generation that trends in popular understanding of human development in the womb, or of the social and psychological damage that abortion can inflict, were on their side. Ireland, which for many pro-lifers was the model for legal protection of unborn human life in the Western world, is now the first nation in Europe or the Americas to bring in abortion by popular referendum. And, unlike the justices on America’s Supreme Court, and the parliamentarians of the United Kingdom, Irish voters did this while knowing full well what they were doing.
Irish voters had the benefit of advances in our knowledge of embryology. They also knew that legal abortion would not be limited to the so-called hard cases of rape, incest, and “fatal fetal abnormality.” They knew that in countries with laws comparable to the ones their legislature proposed to enact, the elective-abortion rate had climbed until abortion had become the end for roughly one in five pregnancies. They voted as they did knowing that Dublin is one of the only European cities where people with Down syndrome are regularly seen in the streets, and knowing that the reason for this was that Ireland had the Eighth Amendment.
Repeal of the Eighth Amendment carried every county save Donegal. Every age group voted for repeal except for those over 65. The youngest cohort of Irish voters was by far the most pro-repeal. The late intervention of Google and Facebook, which banned or scrutinized advertising during the campaign, turned out to be entirely unnecessary. The vote was so decisive that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who the night before had told colleagues that there should be no celebration however the vote went, belatedly acknowledged the crowd of pro-choice revelers descending on Dublin Castle. He tweeted a picture of himself gazing at them, with the line “Fantastic crowds at Dublin Castle. Remarkable day. A quiet revolution has taken place, a great act of democracy.” For those unschooled in Canadian history, a “quiet revolution” refers to the rapid secularization of law and society in the once devoutly Catholic province of Quebec.
What happened to Catholic Ireland? Sober expression on this matter was difficult to find in recent weeks, but Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole tried. “The remarkable thing, indeed, is not that the official Catholic Ireland died but that it lingered so long,” he wrote. “It is astonishing to think, for example, that it is less than a quarter of a century since a proposal to remove the ban on divorce — the most flagrantly Catholic provision in the Constitution — was passed by a margin of fewer than 10,000 votes.”
Why didn’t Catholic Ireland hang on longer? The history is a long one. Having been one of the only native institutions that were allowed to grow after Emancipation in the 19th century, the Catholic Church and its various religious bodies were positioned to act as a kind of civil service for an independent state short of resources, at least in matters of health, social policy, and education. But this role in Irish life made the Church a part of almost every Irish calamity. And in the generation since that divorce referendum, the failures of Irish institutions and Irish society in the 20th century have been ceaselessly scrutinized: from the mother-and-baby homes in Tuam, where babies of unwed mothers died without sufficient medical treatment and were buried unceremoniously, to the industrial schools such as the Christian Brothers’ school at Artane, where children of the poor were treated like convicts, to an adoptions system that often operated illegally and with standards that in retrospect look no different from child trafficking. The Catholic Church was implicated in all these crimes.
An honest and balanced examination would point out that the Irish state and society were also implicated in these failures, that many of these tragedies were produced not simply by the imposition of religious doctrine by a handful of celibate clerics but also by the curious intersection of Irish poverty, Irish adoption of Victorian bourgeois morality, a devoutly Catholic society, and an embrace of 20th-century institutionalized approaches to social problems. But it was almost impossible to have a balanced and calm discussion when at the same time that these failures were being unearthed, the Catholic Church in Ireland, the one that educates the vast majority of Irish children in its schools, was revealed to have enabled and then hidden from justice the clerical perpetrators of child rape. In an environment such as this, the Church may preach mercy but would be foolish to expect any.
It is a commonplace in Ireland to say that the Church has lost its authority on moral questions. But that is almost beside the point. The Church in Ireland has experienced the humiliation of having its sins exposed without ever getting around to the penance. It carries on managing schools and hospitals but is so fearful of exciting public wrath that it hardly ventures to do anything in Irish life that might draw attention. Even if it had moral authority, the Church would be terrified of exercising it. Naturally, its bishops barely said a word about the referendum.
Another way to look at Ireland’s transformation from a deeply Catholic society to a liberal one is to note that it is an increasingly integrated part of the global Anglophone culture. It merely lagged behind other nations in its social transformation because it was, until recently, a much more rural society than the United Kingdom or America. But since the 1960s, it has been reshaped by the same mass culture produced in London, New York, and Hollywood. And it has urbanized rapidly. In 1960, most Irish people lived in rural areas. Now well over 60 percent are classified as living in urban centers, putting Ireland roughly between Eastern European countries and its Western European neighbors in population density.
Although Irish laws against abortion seem to have suppressed Ireland’s abortion rate, abortion was increasingly a commonplace of Irish life. Even in the early 1980s, when the Eighth Amendment passed, hundreds of Irish women each week made the trip to Liverpool or London to have abortions. More recently many Irish women have been ordering abortifacients by mail, and these have not been impounded by customs. Ireland has joined fully the Western European and American way of life when it comes to marriage, sex, and childbearing. And that way of life includes abortion.
For now Irish social conservatism has a hunted quality. Until recently, all the major parties in Ireland save for Labour were considered socially conservative. In the last election Fine Gael leaders Varadkar and Simon Coveney were understood to be pro-life politicians. So too was Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, the party assumed to have the most socially conservative voters and elected parliamentarians. But without much public debate, all of the above-mentioned men came out in support of repeal after their last election and ahead of the referendum. And all of them are generally supportive of the proposed legislation that would make abortion easy to obtain up to 24 weeks’ gestation.
With bishops gone from the field and the leaders of all the major parties supportive of repeal, the burden of arguing for retaining the Eighth fell almost exclusively to a handful of socially conservative media figures, most of them associated with the Iona Institute, a socially conservative think tank. With no political party taking up their cause, it was easy for Irish media outlets to cast them as unrepresentative of any important strand of opinion in Irish life and to heap abuse on them.
To pro-lifers in Ireland, the political fallout has a surreal or even absurdist quality. Somehow the overwhelming result for repeal has transformed such a figure as health minister Simon Harris into a political superstar. His vocal campaigning for repeal got him declared a champion of women’s health. Yet it was Harris who, weeks earlier, could not even begin to tell the media the number of Irish women who had died early deaths in a recent health scandal in which a laboratory subcontracted by the government had misinformed scores of women about the results of their cervical-cancer checks. How could a man leading a health ministry directly culpable in the early deaths of many women be a champion of women’s health? Only by elevating an ideological test over reality.
And in that strange juxtaposition is perhaps the tiny glimmer of hope for Ireland’s social conservatives. In the wake of the referendum, journalists and campaigners have indulged in triumphalism. Some have lobbied for people at the Iona Institute to be henceforward excluded from debates of public issues. Journalists and commentators have declared that the new, liberal, and progressive Ireland is a fact now, old Ireland having been once and for all slain. If liberal Ireland is now ascendant, then the failures, injustices, and dysfunctionality of Irish society and governance will henceforward take the shine off liberal ideas. Catholic Ireland ran roughshod over some. And liberal Ireland will do the same.
For the rest of the world, Ireland may contain another discomfiting lesson — namely, that there is no exception. When it comes to family matters, social liberation comes as a package deal. At least for now, societies that are permissive in matters of sex and divorce will be societies in which abortion is not only demanded as a right but becomes common. Ireland is merely catching up to the rest of the West. The question for Ireland and the West more broadly is how long this way of life remains sustainable or even pleasant for those in it. In 35 years, quite a lot can change.