What is Ireland’s future after repealing its ban on abortion?
Many of Ireland’s “no” supporters—that is, the 34 percent of voters who urged the retention of the republic’s constitutional commitment to equal protection for the unborn—were not exactly surprised to end up on the losing side of the historic referendum. Irish media, “no” campaigners charge, had essentially promoted repeal. And just about no one in Ireland’s political establishment spoke out against the repeal of the Eighth. The amendment had created a de facto prohibition of abortion in the republic since it was added to the constitution in 1983.
But the scale and breadth of the loss on May 25 was a bit of a shock. Repeal passed with more than 66 percent of the vote. It passed in small Irish villages and bustling cities, across Ireland’s rolling countryside and just about every Irish demographic. According to exit polls, Irish citizens older than 65 were the only major group who voted to retain the Eighth, but even within that presumably more conservative demographic 41 percent endorsed repeal.
Scenes of jubilation among repeal supporters gathered outside Dublin Castle as the final votes were counted provided an additional shock, especially to those who had voted for the Eighth’s repeal even as they maintained grave reservations about abortion itself.
A shocking margin
David Quinn, a campaigner to preserve the Eighth Amendment, expected repeal to pass, but he anticipated that its winning percentage would be in the “mid-to-high 50s.”
“But the mid-60s,” he adds, slowly. “That was amazing.” Even to repeal supporters.
Mr. Quinn leads the Iona Institute, an Irish think tank that “promotes the place of marriage and religion in society.” A reliable social conservative as a columnist for The Sunday Times and the weekly Irish Catholic, Mr. Quinn, along with a fellow Iona Institute spokesperson, Maria Steen, had been the most recognizable faces of the anti-repeal effort.
In the run-up to the vote, according to Mr. Quinn, polling and focus groups working for the “no” side were “recording a lot of discomfort with the law” that might emerge in Ireland following repeal, offering a small source of hope to defenders of the Eighth. But when it came time to vote, he believes, many simply put those misgivings aside.
“People decided, ‘I just don’t like the Eighth; it’s just too strict even if I have nervousness about the laws that might replace it.’ The hard cases stuck in people’s imagination.”
The “hard cases,” pregnancies that are the result of incest or rape or among women who receive diagnoses of significant fetal anomalies or conditions contrary to life, had been the focus of much of the civic discussion in the weeks leading up to the referendum, Mr. Quinn says.
Repeal passed in small Irish villages and bustling cities, across Ireland’s rolling countryside and just about every Irish demographic.
Now he wonders if many of the likely voters surveyed by his pollsters truly were nervous over the possibility of abortion on demand up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, as many believe the enacting legislation for abortion in Ireland will allow, or only told his pollsters they had concerns “just to be nice.”
“Our hope was that the 12 weeks would be uppermost in their minds, and it just wasn’t,” he says.
Mr. Quinn seems to marvel over his own words as he revisits the outcome of the referendum. According to Mr. Quinn, Ireland had been the first nation to create a constitutional right to life and now becomes the first nation "to remove a constitutional right…by popular vote, and it was constitutional protection for the unborn.”
“It is kind of shocking because you’re taking away a human right,” he says, “you’re saying that the most vulnerable human being has less of a human right than you or I do, that they are not human enough to have a right to life.”
“In Ireland we have elevated the right to personal choice above the fundamental right to life itself,” Archbishop Martin says. That result, he argues, flies in the face of not only the church’s understanding of the sacredness of life, but a growing scientific consensus on the humanity of the unborn.
“At the same time that the scientific and medical evidence has never been clearer about the reality of human life [in the womb], we are saying that some human life is less significant and less deserving of protection than others.”
Though only about a third of the Irish electorate voted to preserve the Eighth Amendment, Archbishop Martin remains convinced that Ireland’s pro-life community will be able to influence the national dialogue about the enacting legislation that will follow the referendum. “Even among the ‘yes’ voters, there is not a lot of support for an unrestricted abortion regime,” he says.
Irish journalist and author Mary Kenny trades her time between a home in England’s south and a flat in Dublin. She says that the seeming landslide for repeal does not tell the whole story of the attitude of Irish voters toward abortion.
“Even among the ‘yes’ voters, there is not a lot of support for an unrestricted abortion regime.”
Among the repeal supporters, she suggests, “there would be Catholics who would say, ‘We believe in the separation of our church and state,’” folks who would be willing “to vote something religious out of the constitution” but who are still personally against abortion and would object to the materialization of anything like U.S.-style abortion on demand in Ireland.
Indeed, the Irish Health Ministry’s current proposals for abortion would put the republic in line with limitations that are common elsewhere in Europe but that would no doubt be cause for an uproar in the United States. Under the proposals, pregnancies that have not exceeded 12 weeks may be terminated without conditions after a 72-hour waiting period. Pregnancies may also be terminated after two medical practitioners certify that the fetus is suffering from a condition that is likely to lead to death either before or within 28 days of birth. They may also be ended under the plan when the fetus has not reached viability and two physicians confirm a significant risk to the mother’s life or health, or when an immediate risk is determined in the opinion of two physicians.
Despite such restrictions, “in practice,” David Quinn worries, “there will be very, very few abortions refused under this law.”
The national debate
Ms. Kenny describes herself as “more a sympathetic onlooker” to the great debate over the Eighth than someone “involved in the fray.” There were many moments she was grateful to be so.
Anti-repeal campaigners like Mr. Quinn “have been through a real battle,” she says, describing the personal attacks some anti-repeal spokespeople experienced as “odious and vicious”—which is not to say that she did not also hear thoughtful and measured comments from supporters of repeal.
Linda Hogan, an ethicist and professor of ecumenics at Trinity College in Dublin, believes the outcome of the referendum and the manner in which it was conducted have proved a net positive for the people of Ireland. “I think it was a mature debate,” she says. “There were a lot of strong feeling expressed on all sides. Some of that spilled over into occasional hostility, but I think for the most part it was a very good debate, and I think I would be saying that regardless of the outcome.”
While the repeal vote propelled much gloomy chatter in the media about the “end of Catholic Ireland,” Ms. Hogan says, “I do think that it is a change that has already happened in a way.” The church’s inability to interrupt the momentum for same-sex marriage had already confirmed that in modern Ireland, Catholic sensibilities would not always dictate public policy.
As in other nations with sizable numbers of Catholics, “there is a significant number of Catholics who have fundamental problems with church teaching on a range of issues associated with sexuality,” says Ms. Hogan, “and I don’t really see people changing their minds on that.
“They know what the church teaching is, but they don’t believe that is ethical and right.”
“My own sense,” she adds, “is that significant numbers of people voted for repeal for very strong reasons of conscience, mainly those associated with what they perceived as the harm that had been done over 30 years with this very blunt instrument” of the Eighth Amendment. Ms. Hogan argues it had been a mistake to add the amendment to the Constitution in the first place.
“Ireland has not been immune to the tsunami of secularism that has swept across Europe and the rest of the West.”
She finds it telling that among the strong majority of the Irish electorate that supported repeal, “one did not see significant divergences” in most demographic categories.
“That is an indication that people do believe that within these restricted circumstances abortion should be available within the Irish context,” she says. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
She agrees with other commentators that a certain level of ambivalence was in play among many of those voting for repeal. But “even with certain qualms,” Ms. Hogan believes, voters recognized a fundamental hypocrisy at work in Ireland on the issue of abortion: the annual flight of approximately 3,500 Irish women seeking abortions to the United Kingdom. “People have come to believe that Irish women should have access to these services in Ireland, that it simply isn’t permissible for a society to be exporting what it regards as a problem.”
Other pro-repeal voters decided that “medical staff should be allowed to make medical decisions” regarding the termination of pregnancies, according to Ms. Hogan. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who succumbed to sepsis in 2012 after being denied an abortion during a protracted miscarriage, had been a primary motivator for many supporting the repeal.
Like Ms. Hogan, Archbishop Martin does not perceive the repeal referendum as quite the culture shift some social commentators propose it to be, that disruption having come to pass long ago. He traces it back to the visit by St. John Paul II to Ireland in 1979, during which the pope warned that the nation was at a crossroads and would soon have to choose its own unique path or accept the secularism already taken for granted in Western Europe.
The archbishop thinks it is clear now the path the republic has chosen. “Ireland has not been immune to the tsunami of secularism that has swept across Europe and the rest of the West,” he says.
A generalized anger at the Catholic Church in Ireland—its scandals and excessive dominance of Irish life and culture in the past—surely played a role in the repeal turnout and margin of victory, according to Mr. Quinn and other anti-repeal campaigners.
Ireland’s historical experience, escaping after a long struggle from a British colonial rule that was at times fiercely hostile to the church, led a liberated Ireland almost as a point of honor to become a “super-Catholic” state upon independence, according to Mr. Quinn. The church played an over-determining role in Irish life that was unknown even in other predominantly Catholic nations in Europe, and Ireland did not secularize over time in a manner comparable to its European peers, he says.
With the acquiescence and support of the infant Irish state, the church became the nation’s leading provider in education, social services and health care during the Free State period and early decades of the republic. “It was very powerful when people wanted it to be powerful,” says Mr. Quinn of the church, “and now we feel a new form of independence in resistance to the church.” Its all-encompassing past has come back to haunt the church in Ireland as revelations of abuse within its institutions continue to unfold.
Archbishop Martin agrees that a certain percentage of the repeal vote reflected “a rejection of the past of old Ireland and perhaps shaking off the way the church had influenced the past.” According to Archbishop Martin, repeal proponents had made part of their pitch a demand for the Irish to “leave behind a darker society, a more harsh society and all of that darkness and harshness has been projected on the church.”
It is a commonplace he has come to resent. “We used to blame everything on the British,” he says with a mischievous laugh. “Now we blame the church.”
He hurries to acknowledge that “there is no question” that the church had contributed to many dark moments being brought to light in modern Ireland; the sexual abuse crisis is, of course, a primary example. Other stories of abuse and malpractice have emerged from the church’s dominant role in education and in care for abandoned or out-of-wedlock babies as well as “fallen” or “wayward” girls at the now notorious Magdalene laundries.
But the archbishop wishes such moments were recalled now with more historical context. “It is the history of Ireland and our society, of which the church played its part.” But what should be recalled, he says, is the complete lack of social services outside the church and the extreme poverty in the past, factors that contributed to the dire conditions at many church-run institutions, and the failure of government to properly sustain such institutions or play its role in caring for the nation’s vulnerable.
After the repeal
The anti-repeal movement always faced an uphill battle, Ms. Kenny says, since “most of the media and both [major] parties were hostile” to it.
Of the church’s role in the debate, she says, “I thought at the time it was a good idea to stay out and let the laypeople lead.” It was especially bracing to see young pro-life women take on the debate, she says, “rather than elderly bishops.”
Now she is not so sure the low profile was the right idea. “Maybe now it seemed that they were weak?” she wonders. The absence of any comment during the run-up to the referendum from Pope Francis, who will visit Ireland in August for the World Meeting of Families, was especially noticed, Ms. Kenny says.
The criticism draws a bemused response from Archbishop Martin. “When you say, ‘the church,’ I’m guessing that what you mean is ‘the bishops,’” he says, pointing out that “the church” had indeed been well represented by the laity in the campaign against the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. But owing to the heat of the public debate and a sense of the kinds of optics that might work best for the vote, the Irish bishops elected to lead from behind, as President Obama might say. “We were not in campaign mode,” says Archbishop Martin. “We were in teaching mode.”
He describes an atmosphere in Ireland that had been “overwhelmingly in favor of repeal.” The church’s countercultural message struggled to rise above the attention showered on the repeal campaign and the sometimes vitriolic pushback against any pro-life messages. Instead of getting involved in TV panel show debates, he says, Irish bishops released teaching documents on the issue to their local churches. “We did take a very clear line; every one of the bishops issued a pastoral letter, pointing out very clearly the church’s teaching that all human life is sacred and precious…. that we valued both lives, the baby and the mother, and we believe it was possible for Ireland to do so as well.” He argues it would have been impossible for any Irish voter not to understand where the bishops stood on the matter.
“We used to blame everything on the British. Now we blame the church.”
Archbishop Martin believes the call to laypeople to step forward as “missionaries for life” during the run-up to the referendum will have a lasting impact on the evangelizing capacity of the church in Ireland. “I spoke to one woman who was very sad after the vote. She told me, ‘I knocked on doors for six weeks every evening…I had conversations with hundreds, if not thousands of people and it was all a waste.’
“I told her, ‘Not one of those conversation was a waste.’
“We have sown a seed which, please God, will germinate,” he says.“We have to look at the role of the church in Ireland now and into the future,” the archbishop adds. “On the down side, people will say the church did not say enough, but we did mobilize thousands of faithful who entered into the service of the gospel of life and who will always be in that service. I’ll leave it to someone else to decide if that was a good strategy.”
Ms. Kenny wonders if those who fought for a woman’s right to choose will be willing now to support the right to choose, even to think, differently. Will speech and conscience rights be at risk after the legalization of abortion in Ireland?
She notes that in other European societies pro-life voices have been silenced under the law in the aftermath of such bruising cultural fights. “The American commitment to freedom of speech is not repeated in Europe,” she says.
Ironically it is now the evangelical community in Northern Ireland that is “holding the line” against the liberalization of abortion laws throughout all of Ireland, she says. And owing to the prominent role Ulster Unionists play in holding together Theresa May’s Conservative government, abortion rights may not be extended island-wide any time soon. Although pressure continues to build on the holdout North, and Mrs. May’s coalition appears on the verge of collapse.
Pro-life Ireland may be licking its wounds now and “reflecting on a terrible disappointment,” Ms. Kenny says, “but I think there remains a sizable pro-life community in Ireland, and they will do what they can to mitigate the situation.”
Besides, the referendum could hardly capture the overall ambivalence of the Irish on the issue, according to Ms. Kenny. Many voted yes to get religion out of the Constitution, she says; few participants in the referendum believed they were casting votes for abortion on demand.
Whatever laws are passed, medical and pharmaceutical advances make abortions easier to protect as private matters. But Ms. Kenny adds that such advances also make it harder to deny the reality of the unborn life in the womb. “The unveiling” of that life by ultrasound, she suggests, has had a profound impact on the debate, and not just in Ireland.
Whether or not the Irish government can persist with a model of health care delivery that is so entwined with the Catholic Church will remain a larger matter to address.
Few people are able to think in the black-and-white suggested by the up-or-down vote of the referendum, she says. People on both sides of the abortion debate, she suspects, are “much more ambivalent than the rather binary way it’s presented” in the media.
She is eager to see what the practical outcome of that ambivalence will be over the long term for Ireland, suggesting that reversals of social changes are not impossible. “Things come around in a cycle,” she says. “People realize the way things were done in the past were not always daft. I think hope is a Christian virtue that we must practice.”
Archbishop Martin insists that he looks to the future with a sense of hope. “It is an exciting and challenging time to be Catholic and Christian indeed in Ireland today,” he says.
“This is our time,” he says, “this the time God has called us to be priests, to be bishops, to be faithful Catholics. We can’t turn the clock back to the past.
“We are indeed in a new mission now,” he says.
He believes the pro-life community in Ireland will rebound from the setback of the repeal vote to focus on restraining the “undue haste” with which the Irish government seeks to rewrite its laws on abortion. He worries that any attempt to talk about the rights of the unborn will now be “airbrushed out” of Irish life, that “having obliterated the right to life out of the Constitution, this country would go on to obliterate the life of the unborn child from medical and public discussions.”
“[But] as long as people will defend the taking of the life of an innocent unborn child,” Archbishop Martin says, “there will be people who will try to defend the right of that unborn child to life.”
He is also concerned that the rights of conscience for members of the Irish medical community not be undermined. According to the archbishop, Irish general practitioners are being discussed as the facilitators of abortion services, a role he believes many never anticipated when they began their careers in community-service-based medicine.
“The woman’s right to choose was the platform on which the ‘yes’ vote was achieved,” Archbishop Martin says. “I would like to think there would be enough structural support to allow women to say, ‘No’ to abortions and to assist people in making an informed choice.”
He says that the Irish bishops conference intends to establish “a council for life” that will publicly “engage on this issue and other pro-life issues.” He suspects that euthanasia will be the next pressing issue for the church to confront, but among other pro-life issues the council will tackle, he includes homelessness and migration. “We really need to extend the consistent ethic for life in Ireland,” Archbishop Martin says.
Going forward, how institutional and individual conscience are protected will be a challenge, Linda Hogan agrees.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has already suggested that Catholic-run hospitals may be required to offer abortion services. Catholic hospitals in Ireland get as much as 80 percent of their funding from public sources, according to Ms. Hogan. “The primary and for most people only access to hospital care is through Catholic services,” she says. “This is something the state is going to have to reckon with.”
But she does not think a workable compromise is impossible. “I don’t see any reason to require a Catholic hospital to provide a service that runs counter to its ethos, but the state has to provide access to services that the people want.”
She points out that the Irish state has previously had to manage related conflicts over contraception, sterilization and in vitro fertilization services. “For the most part, where the state is providing resources, the hospitals have to at least have provisions for people to receive these services,” she says.
Faced with what will surely be a quandary over abortion services once the enacting legislation is approved, she suggests the government may be forced to expedite the creation of new health facilities. But it may also have to look at the governance structure of existing services. Whether or not the Irish government can persist with a model of health care delivery that is so entwined with the Catholic Church will remain a larger matter to address, she says.
Ms. Hogan agrees that the enacting legislation will face resistance from pro-life veterans of the repeal campaign. She does not think that they will be able to change much about it, however. “The draft legislation is very clear; it has spelled out all of the circumstance in which termination would be permitted.” In keeping with other European models, she describes the proposals as “restrictive…appropriately so.”
Looking to the future, she does not believe that abortion will play the same culturally neuralgic role it has in the United States precisely because the matter was decided by a vote after a thorough public debate rather than pushed through by a court decision. At least that is her hope. “But already one hears of groups getting prepared for protests outside maternity hospitals and fertility clinics, etc., so it is possible that many of the marks of that sort of political divisiveness might indeed become evident in Ireland.”
David Quinn believes Irish pro-lifers will soon shake off their disappointment and prepare to dig in for a long struggle. Their aim will be to limit as much as possible the abortion regime that will soon emerge in Ireland.
Does he think the standoff over abortion will become as acrimonious in Ireland as it has been in the United States? Mr. Quinn does not consider that the right question. “There are many debates that are acrimonious,” he says. “Look at Brexit, look at immigration. It is an acrimonious debate when people’s fundamental values are at stake; people get very passionate.
“I think the question now for Ireland is: Do we become more like Sweden where no one even questions abortion? There’s no acrimony there because there’s no question about it anymore. Doctors and nurses can’t even question it.
“I’d prefer the acrimony of debate in the United States,” Mr. Quinn says, “because that at least means the issue is still in play.”
Correction July 23, 2018; 5:29 p.m. ET: David Quinn is a columnist for The Sunday Times, not the Irish Independent, as originally reported.