Irish Pro-lifers Campaign to Keep Abortion Illegal

Ireland may well become the first country to introduce abortion by popular vote. This would follow a thirty-five year campaign by abortion advocates to overcome a 1983 amendment protecting the life of the unborn.

The Irish Constitution can be amended by the electorate in a referendum. A referendum put to the people is proposed by the national legislature which consists of two houses: the popularly elected Dáil Eireann and an upper house, the Seanad, consisting of appointed and/or indirectly elected members, and with primarily delaying legislative powers.

In a referendum scheduled for Friday, May 25, Irish voters will be asked to approve or reject a proposed amendment that would delete an existing constitutional provision (Article 40.3.3), itself approved by the electorate in 1983. Article 40.3.3 is referred to as the 8th Amendment because it was the eighth to the 1937 constitution. It reads as follows:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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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 practical, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

The 8th Amendment had come into being as a response to anxiety that the Irish judiciary, which like the American Supreme Court, has the power of judicial review, might take a cue from the later and interpret the “right of abortion” as immune from ordinary legislative restriction, as the Roe vs Wade decision did in 1973 in America. Liberalizing abortion legislation in Britain and other European countries prompted many in Ireland to advocate a constitutional guarantee of the “right to life” that ordinary legislation could not trespass. That article was approved in a referendum by more that 60 percent of the electorate.

No doubt the strongly Catholic ethos of the Ireland at that time contributed to the passage. Alas, things have changed considerably in Irish society. The Catholic influence has diminished, brought on in no small part by a number of scandals involving clergy. However, many other factors, such as increasing material wealth, relaxed family solidarity, and a liberalized media, played significant roles.

In 1992, the Irish Supreme Court interpreted the anti-abortion amendment of 1983 to allow termination of a pregnancy when there was a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including a risk of suicide. The same year, referendums added provisions to the 1983 article permitting freedom to travel abroad to obtain an abortion or make available information about abortion service in other states.

In more recent times the Irish government has resorted to a new instrument to consider and then propose amendments to the constitution, which ordinarily was done by the legislature itself. Rather than rely just on the elected legislature, an assembly would be selected by polling agencies according to criteria supposedly reflective of the Irish population as a whole. That body would meet on a weekly basis over several months and hear testimony from authoritative commentators on the issues being considered as amendments. Afterwards, specific resolutions would be recommended to the national legislature to approve and then submit to the electorate in a referendum.

This system gave an aura of impartial expertise to the recommendations and spared the elected legislators from having to either earn the credit or take the blame for any proposal. Usually the media and other “impartial” experts would lend the weight of their endorsements to the proposals.

Not unexpectedly, the Citizens’ Assembly that gathered in 2017, endorsed an amendment to replace the celebrated 8th Amendment, the one of 1983 that opposed abortion. The legislature, with the support of the leaders of all political parties, the coalition government and the opposition, endorsed the repeal amendment, which in one sentence undid the constitutional protection of the life of the unborn with the words:

Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.

In accordance with that, a legislative committee has proposed tentative measures to be enacted upon the success of the repeal campaign. Those proposals would allow abortion for any reason up to the twelfth week of pregnancy and afterwards for reasons such as danger to the life of the mother, which would include the threat of suicide, to be determined by doctors.

Opponents of the proposed referendum argue that the open-ended language of the amendment would ultimately permit unlimited abortion comparable to what happened in Britain once abortion was allowed in the late 1960s. There almost one fifth of pregnancies end in abortion and much higher statistics exist in parts of the United States.

Some advocates of the amendment argue things would be different in Ireland as it would be primarily the hard cases, such as pregnancies resulting from rape, endangering the life or health of the mother, or where the health of the unborn would suggest unlikelihood of survival or serious impairment after birth.

Opponent of the amendment respond by noting the virtual absence of Down Syndrome births in many countries with very liberal abortion rules, which implies that the unborn with Down Syndrome indices are not given a chance to survive.

It can also be noted that a central message of some advocates of the amendment is their insistence on a woman’s right to control her own body. That would imply a right to abort entirely for her convenience. That conceivably could be for outrageous reasons, such as is common in many Asian countries, aborting a child because of its sex.

The “hard case” question is what advocates of the amendment frequently invoke to confront the supporters of a “No” vote. However, many of the hard cases are solved by compliant doctors who certifying that a pregnant women’s life is endangered, especially from a threat of suicide. On the other hand, few “Yes” advocates are asked if there are any cases in which they would not allow an abortion.

Not surprisingly, Google and Facebook have in recent days blocked advertisements related to the referendum, one suspects because the “No” or Right to Life side was making more use of such.

Of course, the repeal or “Yes” campaign has received almost universal politically correct media support both in Ireland and internationally and from multinational organizations.

As disturbing was a statement issued by the dissenting Association of Catholic Priests (usually critical of the Church for its unreceptivity to women priests or homosexuality) asking that the hierarchy and the clergy not use the pulpit to intimidate voters from conscientiously making up their own minds.

Unfortunately, the leadership of both major parties, the historically more conservative Fine Gael, who are in power as part of a coalition with a variety of independents, and the opposition populist and nationalist (but in many ways as conservative) Fianna Fáil, support the amendment. Also do most of the assorted independent and primarily leftist groups, as well as Sinn Féin. However, some, such as former Fine Gael Taoiseach (Prime Minister) John Bruton, and a majority of the Fianna Fáil legislators support the maintenance of the 8th Amendment.

Ironically, if the measure passes, the Irish Republic will be the part of the island of Ireland allowing same-sex “marriage” and abortion, in contrast to the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The outcome is uncertain, with most experts suggesting a “Yes” victory. But they have not taken into consideration the power of novenas and rosaries, which, the diminished Catholic ethos notwithstanding, still mean something in Ireland.

(Photo credit: Life Institute, Ireland)


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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