What Ireland’s Abortion Referendum is Really About

This year Ireland will hold a referendum on the issue of abortion. The date has not yet been set but the vote will probably take place in May. Since 1983, enshrined in the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, there has been a constitutional ban on abortions taking place in the Irish Republic. This prohibition was the result of a referendum that took place that year with the resultant Article 40.3.3 stating: “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.”

The referendum that will occur later this year is about whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment. If so repealed, it will allow for the full legalization of abortion to occur.

In the Irish Republic today, abortion is outlawed in all but one exceptional circumstance: threat to the life of the mother. This is the fourth referendum that the Irish Republic has held on abortion. These referenda, court cases and legislative modifications have chipped away at the outright ban on abortion articulated in 1983. The final excising of Article 40.3.3 from the Constitution will, in effect, remove the main obstacle to abortion on demand, which will then, sooner rather than later, become a reality within the Irish state.

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Nevertheless, the debate underway in Ireland is about much more than simply abortion. It is not just a legal prohibition that is being voted on so much as on what that constitutional protection represents.

In 1983 the campaign to introduce safeguards for the unborn into the Irish constitution occurred in a different country to the one that is now revisiting that decision. In 1983, Pope John Paul II’s triumphant papal visit to Ireland of 1979 was then still fresh in people’s minds. The revelations of clerical abuse scandals that were to rock the Irish church had not yet come to light. The Church remained active in schools and hospitals and in many other areas. The Catholic Church was still a dominant force in Irish life, with her voice on many matters stronger than that of any political party or social group within the state.

In 1983, Ireland’s membership of the then European Economic Community was still relatively recent; it had joined ten years earlier. The economic prosperity that unleashed the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ had not yet arrived. Needless to say, nor had the internet. The mass media explosion of television and radio had not yet hit Ireland either. The public debate around abortion in 1983 was played out largely via the state broadcaster, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE), and the Irish print media. Although some sections of the media were liberal, on the whole the country was still—publicly at least—socially conservative.

The Irish political and social landscape looks decidedly different today. The country has undergone a prolonged period of economic growth, followed by an equally sharp economic downturn. Today, the nation’s rapid return to prosperity, with ongoing positive indicators in the economy, is as unexpected as it is welcomed by both politicians and people alike. These experiences have only strengthened, however, the political consensus that Ireland is a modern, economically self-reliant nation firmly within the European Union.

This political consensus on Ireland’s economy is a view largely shared by the main political parties. The leaderships of those same political parties—Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil—are now socially liberal in their attitudes to such matters as abortion. Some say this reflects the views of the country at large. The 2015 “Yes” vote on a same-sex “marriage” referendum—carried by almost two thirds of the electorate—would seem to suggest that this is the case. On the subject of abortion, though, matters may not be so straightforward. That said, opinion on abortion is harder to gauge than on the 2015 vote: not least because the Irish media is wholly liberal and gives little room to voices dissenting from what are described as “liberal progressive” social attitudes. If there are alternative views in Ireland, they are rarely heard on the mainstream media or, if they are, they are manipulated to appear in ways that negate their position.

In the forthcoming referendum throughout the Irish media it will be a one-sided conversation. The “pro-choice” side will be depicted as being concerned about women, forward looking and practical about addressing the problem of unwanted pregnancies—in step with modern European morality on such matters. The word “compassionate” has been already hijacked by that side, and is the first adjective reached for in any media debate, often as a way of closing down, rather than engaging with the arguments at hand. The pro-abortionists talk as if abortion was simply a matter of public health provision, and are allowed to do so by the media. With so much already ranged against the pro-life position, by the media at least, it is fair to say those who want to see the Republic maintain its protection of the unborn have a mountain to climb.

Inevitably, during the wider campaign, the pro-abortion strategy employed will be all too predictable. They want to stereotype the pro-life movement as essentially one run by the Catholic Church. This then feeds into a number of fears and antagonisms within Irish society, all involving either memories of the nation’s historic clericalism when the Church was seen as all powerful, or its later, more recent anti-clerical reaction when the same Church was seen to be in the dock—yet both of these are historic and bear little resemblance to the Catholic Church’s position in today’s Ireland.

Increasingly unwilling to be defined by religion, the Ireland of 2018 sees herself, and wants to be seen as, fully European. Its political elite accepts, without question, the liberal tenets that now dominate the European Union’s social, economic, and political thinking. There is a constant fear in the Irish psyche of being perceived as peripheral, rural, backward—a relic of the nineteenth century English stereotype of the Irish. The modern Irish Republic sees any overt link, therefore, with its Catholic past as part of that “baggage.” Many cannot, or are reluctant to, accept that Catholic past as a spiritual legacy, part of their nation’s heritage, an essential component of what Ireland still is today.

So what is at stake in the forthcoming vote is how Ireland sees herself now, and how she wants to be perceived in the future. Is Ireland a modern European state or a “priest-ridden backwater”? Is it a secular republic or a Catholic nation? And, henceforth the course the country charts will be based upon this collective sense emerging from the outcome of the 2018 referendum. This spring, across the Irish Republic, voters will therefore be deciding not only on the legality of killing the unborn but, also, on what type of country in which they wish to live. Sadly, it appears that some, perhaps many, will decide to turn from their Catholic past and its concern for the weakest in society to choose instead the brave new world on offer.


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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