DUBLIN — Irish pro-life workers awoke Tuesday in little doubt about the scale of the abortion threat now facing the country, following a special meeting of the Irish cabinet late Monday evening that formally approved the holding of a referendum on abortion at the end of May.

The specially convened meeting on Ireland’s pro-life Eighth Amendment concluded with a news conference in which Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar, flanked by Minister for Health Simon Harris and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone, outlined his government’s plans to hold a referendum to “repeal the Eighth” and insert an “enabling clause” that would give the Parliament (Oireachtas) sweeping powers to legislate for abortion.

Varadkar said, “We already have abortion in Ireland, but it’s unsafe, unregulated and unlawful, and in my opinion, we cannot continue to export our problems [a reference to Irish women traveling abroad for abortions] and import our solutions [a reference to Irish women buying abortion pills from abroad on the internet].”

But clinical psychologist Ruth Cullen of the Pro Life Campaign, one of several pro-life organizations campaigning to protect the Eighth Amendment, said that the government’s proposal would for the first time in Ireland’s history “withdraw basic human rights from a group of vulnerable, defenseless individuals.”

Commenting immediately after the news conference, she said, “The right to life is an inalienable right. It’s not something that can be conferred or withheld by the state at its pleasure.”


The Eighth Amendment

The 35-year-old Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, which recognizes the “equal right to life of the mother” and her unborn child, has been coming under increasing pressure in January, in the upper and lower houses of the Irish Parliament, the Seanad and the Dáil. The text of the amendment states, “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.”

Health Minister Harris claimed in the Dáil that the country had up until now been turning a “blind eye” to women who had to travel outside Ireland for abortions, while several other leaders, across the political divide, have also effectively taken up the “pro-choice” demand to “repeal the Eighth,” via the national referendum expected in May. This would crucially come before an expected papal visit for the World Meeting of Families in August.

Pressure had been mounting on the amendment following the recommendations of a 100-member “Citizens’ Assembly” — whose representativeness has been called into question by pro-life leaders — in May of last year and the cross-party parliamentary committee (of predominantly pro-abortion members) that was formed to consider the assembly’s report and which delivered its own broadly similar recommendations in December.

Both reports recommended allowing abortion on demand, up to at least 12 weeks of pregnancy, as well as abortion for allegedly “fatal fetal abnormalities” right up to birth.

A minority report by dissenting pro-life members of the committee was highly critical of its recommendations, which the minority report described as “cruel and unjust.”

But, two weeks ago, opposition leader Míchéal Martin went against the overwhelming majority view of his own party and added his voice to those seeking a repeal.

More than 80% of Martin’s Fianna Fáil party had voted to retain the Eighth Amendment at its annual convention last year.


Challenging the ‘Evidence’

“He wants to be on that side and be the next taoiseach,” former pharmacist Bernadette Bonar, one of the few surviving architects of the Eight Amendment, told the Register.

Bonar was referring to speculation that the opposition leader’s surprise turnaround was due to his as-yet-untested belief that the women of Ireland now broadly support abortion.

But Martin claimed that it was the evidence given to the cross-party parliamentary abortion committee that had prompted his change, which he said he believed was “the right thing to do.”

That evidence, which was also cited by Taoiseach Varadkar in the news conference, has been hotly contested by a significant number of pro-life politicians who have been extremely critical of the committee and the preceding “Citizens’ Assembly.”

Some of that criticism was expressed last by Michael Collins, one of several parliamentary representatives to speak out strongly in defense of life during a debate in the Dáil.

In a passionately delivered speech, he told the Dáil that there had been “no room [in the committee] for [evidence from] families who say the Eighth Amendment is the reason their child is alive today.”

“Part of me,” he said, “thinks that the real debate we should be having today is why the committee overlooked people like that who were so important.”


Church Leaders

In recent weeks, the Church in Ireland has also been raising its voice, more passionately and frequently, in defense of life.

Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin, who chairs the Irish bishops’ Committee for Bioethics, told the Register, “While I have an interest in this from the perspective of bioethics and the common good, I am also looking at it as a pastor, and I have a deep concern for the spiritual well-being of the Irish people, that we are even discussing a proposal to legalize abortion.”

Bishop Doran also addressed the abortion threat in a pastoral letter released Sunday.

“This is the final frontier,” he said. “If we cross it, there will be no easy way back.”

Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the primate of All Ireland, responded immediately to the government announcement.

Immediately after the news conference, he tweeted, “The equal right to life of all is not a gray issue” — a likely reference to Varadkar’s insistence that “abortion is not a black-and-white issue; it is a gray area.”

The archbishop twice repeated his recent call to Catholics to be “missionaries for life” on what he called a “critical issue for our country.”

Speaking on national radio a few weeks ago, he also repeatedly urged Catholics “not to be afraid.”

While some journalists and abortion activists are already speculating on a Church defeat, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin reminded believers and others, in an interview for national radio just before Christmas, that the Church will only be defeated “if it caves in on its principles.”

Cora Sherlock of the Pro-Life Campaign told the Register, “We know that the journey ahead will be tough, and we have a lot of work on our hands, but there are huge numbers of people from all over Ireland who are already hard at work and many others who are eager to get involved. With a united and committed campaign, we are very confident that we will be successful in keeping the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution.”


The Amendment’s Purpose

The Eighth Amendment was inserted into the Constitution in 1983, when the public in Ireland started to become concerned about developments around the world that were threatening the right to life of unborn children.

Bernadette Bonar explained how the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign — once described as “the most successful single-issue movement in the history of the state” — first came about.

“Most countries were fighting abortion after it came in,” she said. Irish pro-lifers, by contrast, wanted to know: “What could we do to prevent it being legalized? Because in America and England, the people weren’t consulted at all.”

“We tumbled to the idea of amending our Constitution,” because a constitutional amendment meant that the people must be consulted.

The referendum to insert the pro-life amendment into the Irish Constitution as article 40.3.3 was passed with a 67% “Yes” vote.

The existence of the amendment today means that, with the exception of cases involving the threat of suicide, Irish women have to travel abroad if they want to have an abortion.

While “pro-choice” groups and politicians, such as Varadkar, Martin and Harris, see the “need to travel” as a reason to “repeal the Eight,” Bernadette Goulding of Rachel’s Vineyard views it differently.

“I didn’t have to travel very far,” she said. When she was living in London, many years ago, Goulding had an abortion that she now regrets.

“If I had to travel, I would have given life to my child,” she said. “It would have given me the time I would have needed to think more clearly.”

“So many people are alive today because of the Eighth,” she said, “and I know for sure that if I had the time, my child would be alive today.”

Register correspondent Dónal O’Sullivan-Latchford writes from Dublin, Ireland. He is associate news editor for EWTN Ireland.