DUBLIN — Irish pro-life campaigners have vowed that they will keep up the fight in the wake of a crushing referendum defeat that removes the right to life of unborn children from the Irish Constitution.
Voters opted May 25, by a margin of 66.4% to 33.6%, to remove the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which was inserted by a vote of the people in 1983 and guarantees the right to life of unborn children. That article will now be replaced, granting the state the right to regulate abortion.
Minister for Health Simon Harris has pledged to bring forward legislation to permit abortion on demand up to 12 weeks’ gestation, up to 24 weeks when there is an unspecified risk to the health of the mother, and up to birth where the child in the womb is diagnosed with a life-limiting condition, which means he or she is not expected to live for very long after birth.
Whereas the previous legislation required that the condition of a “real and substantial risk” be met, the new legislation “requires merely belief in a risk to life or of serious harm to physical or mental health, not a serious risk,” wrote Georgetown professor John Keown in National Review May 29.
“There is a risk (however slight) to life and of serious harm to health whenever we drive a car or cycle,” he said. “There is a risk (however slight) to life and of serious harm to physical or mental health in every pregnancy. What, then, would prevent two doctors from granting any request for abortion between the twelfth and 24th week if they thought it ‘appropriate’ to terminate in order to eliminate a risk (however slight) that a pregnant woman did not wish to run?”
“In short,” Keown wrote, the legislation “allows for abortion on request.”
The country’s most-senior Church leader, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, said he was “deeply saddened” by the outcome of the referendum, which he said “obliterates” the right to life of the unborn from the Irish Constitution.
He paid tribute to the many thousands of volunteers who had given up their time to canvass votes to seek to ensure that the right to life remained in place.
“I have to say, as a bishop, I’ve been overwhelmed by the witness of so many people who made a huge effort to remind us that in pregnancy we’re dealing with two lives, which are both in need of love and respect and protection.”
“I was humbled in particular by the witness of laywomen and laymen — many of them mothers and fathers themselves, who really became the voice for voiceless unborn children, and I think the pro-life cause in Ireland is now more important than ever,” he said.
And there can be no doubt, as Ireland is on the cusp of following other Western nations in legalizing abortion, that the fight is now more important than ever.
David Quinn, the director of The Iona Institute and one of the leading campaigners urging a “No” vote in the referendum, says it is vital amid the disappointment that pro-life campaigners do not lose heart.
What Went Wrong?
Pro-life activists can look to the polls as they struggle to find what went so decisively wrong. Most pollsters predicted the referendum result would be close. An exit poll conducted by national broadcaster RTÉ revealed that the campaign had little effect on changing minds, whereas a long litany of personal and distressing stories in the media during the run-up to the campaign had the effect of pushing the middle ground to the pro-repeal side.
The exit poll found that 75% of voters said they made up their minds before the campaign. Just 10% of people said they were swayed in the campaign, and 43% of people said their vote was influenced by personal stories of women told in the media.
Newspapers and television channels focused heavily in recent years on interviewing women who opted to travel to Britain for abortions. A further 34% of people said their vote had been influenced by experiences of people they knew.
Given that an estimated 200,000 Irishwomen have traveled to Britain for abortions since 1983, it’s not hard to see the multiplier effect.
For Dominican Father John Harris, who spends most of his ministry working with young Catholics, the result is “the biggest wake-up call ever given to the Church in Ireland.” He insists that “each one of us who claim to be Catholic must listen to it and take it very seriously.”
“One thing is clear: Things can’t go on as before for the Church here in Ireland,” Father Harris said. “Whatever we are doing simply isn’t working. The teaching of the Church on the sacredness of human life is not a peripheral doctrine, and yet there are Catholics who simply ignored this doctrine and presume it’s business as usual.”
The campaign saw frequent interjections from prominent abortion-rights politicians who also asserted that they were devout Catholics. Josepha Madigan, the leader of the government’s “Yes” campaign, is a member of her local parish baptism team and refused to step aside from the role.
Most priests and bishops, however, feared that any public rebuke to politicians in the current environment would be counterproductive.
Just after the referendum, Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin was interviewed on the radio and said that Catholics who voted for abortion should consider going to the sacrament of reconciliation. The reaction was swift and scathing — many callers who professed themselves to be practicing Catholics said the bishop’s intervention was outrageous.
How to Respond
On the optimistic front, Father Harris believes that the campaign has energized faithful Catholics.
“We have within our ranks thousands of enthusiastic and committed people of all ages. The pastoral challenge will be to harness this committed core for the future,” he said.
Peadar Tóibín, a Sinn Féin lawmaker who broke ranks with his own party to oppose abortion, said many voters opted for a “Yes” for hard cases, such as rape and incest, rather than abortion on demand. He pointed out that just 52% of those who voted “Yes” questioned in the exit poll said they were comfortable with the proposal to permit abortion up to 12 weeks. He said this is evidence that a lot of these people are “soft yes” voters.
When it comes to the parliamentary vote, Tóibín said he won’t “prevent” legislation for terminations in cases of rape and fatal fetal abnormalities, but said the 12 weeks’ proposal is different and he would oppose it.
“My views are clear: I oppose abortion. I believe that everyone should be protected.” He said he felt the “No” campaign perhaps did not focus enough on the 12 weeks’ proposal. “That issue is still a contested issue, and anybody who doesn’t admit that is not reflecting the views of the Irish public that were stated in the exit poll,” he said.
During the campaign, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar — Ireland’s prime minister — said he would work to ensure that abortions in Ireland would be rare. Ruth Cullen of the Love Both Project, which opposed the constitutional change, said “we will hold the Taoiseach to his promise that repeal would only lead to abortion in very restrictive circumstances.
“He gave his word on this; now he must deliver on it. No doubt many people voted for repeal based on the Taoiseach’s promises in this regard,” she said.
However, National Review’s Keown said the bill is “more elastic than people realize.”
“What, for example, would prevent a doctor from performing an abortion, up to birth, if he or she thought the woman would otherwise commit suicide, seriously self-harm or have a mental breakdown?” he asked.
Quinn said pro-lifers need to get over the defeat and regroup, as a matter of urgency.
“No social order lasts forever,” he said. “It is now vitally necessary that the pro-life movement become a long-term dissenting voice in society, one that says we should not do away with unchosen burdens like an unplanned pregnancy.”
Added Quinn, “‘Choice’ is not the be-all and end-all. True compassion helps someone carry their burden until the time hopefully comes when it doesn’t feel like a burden anymore.
“That is the task of all Christians who take their faith seriously. This should go without saying.”
Father Harris expressed similar sentiments. “The real choice facing every human being is either heaven or hell; either to accept God or reject him,” he said. “While the Church can never become a cult of the perfect, it nevertheless has to help each of us along the narrow road to a deeper relationship with God.”
Added Father Harris, “Last week made it obvious that we are not only not reaching those on the peripheries; we are losing those sitting in front of us every weekend.”