Growing up as an Irish Catholic in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was quietly but fiercely proud of my country. Our economy was the envy of the world. The Good Friday Agreement had brought peace in the North. The Church had lost a lot of its temporal power, but the abuse scandals made it seem that it might be better and holier that way. Most importantly, we’d made a success of ourselves without making the terrible mistake that other Western countries had. We’d banned the death penalty but hadn’t legalised abortion: our state didn’t authorise premeditated killing of noncombatants in any circumstances. What’s more, our maternal mortality rates and gender equality measures suggested that you didn’t need legal abortion to be a perfectly decent middle-of-the road Western liberal democracy. There was a real sort of Irish exceptionalism.
It’s different now. The Eighth Amendment, which guaranteed the equal right to life of pre-born children, was repealed last year. It was the culmination of more than three decades of campaigning, but the two-thirds margin for repeal shocked even its supporters. On the day of the result Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar addressed cheering, dancing crowds in Dublin Castle and hailed the results of a “quiet revolution”.
It’s apparent now that Ireland was never really forging a new synthesis, fusing the best of old Catholic Ireland with modernity. It was just a few decades behind everyone else. It does sometimes seem like we’re in a time warp, with Varadkar as a more urbane and self-consciously “woke” version of the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” Bill Clinton.
But if we were behind other Western countries, we’re fast closing the gap. Ireland is a small country with a media that are increasingly homogenous. Once a critical mass is reached, a consensus can shift very quickly to an equal and opposite one. The Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermeule tweeted that “Ireland is fascinating because it is passing from liberation to compulsory liberalism at an astonishing pace, making the process easy to observe.”
Take legislation for “exclusion zones” around buildings in which abortions are provided. In the British version of these zones, those opposed to abortion are forbidden from holding posters with certain words on them, engaging in protests or vigils, or attempting to offer assistance or “sidewalk counselling” to women. The first such zone was imposed in Britain last year, 51 years after the 1967 Abortion Act. Ireland’s health minister, Simon Harris, is already proposing to legislate for exclusion zones across the nation.
The exclusion zones debate has quickly become a key battle in post-referendum Ireland. Dr Mark Murphy of Doctors for Choice wrote in the Irish Times that “It is wholly inappropriate to endorse the intimidation of women as they enter a building to access healthcare.” There have been no reports of women being intimidated, but if you define intimidation broadly enough, any attempt to protest against the new service or to offer women alternative options counts.
Some of the people who get involved in sidewalk counselling are cranks, and some pro-life pregnancy counselling agencies were previously found to be providing inaccurate information about the health effects of abortion. But as Blanaid Ní Bhraonáin, a recent law graduate and co-founder of the Students for Life group (Dublin) points out, the government is trying to use the most extreme examples to ban all interventions around abortion providers. “We already have lots of legal mechanisms for addressing harassment. These haven’t been tried and found wanting – they haven’t been tried at all,” she says. “These proposals jump straight to a highly restrictive and unprecedented new law, as a pre-emptive strike against any pro-life attempts to offer alternatives to abortion-minded women.”
Unlike in the UK, we don’t have dedicated abortion clinics. Instead, abortions are provided by maternity hospitals or – in the case of the abortion pill – by GPs. Fewer than 300 of the country’s more than 2,500 doctors have signed up to provide abortions. But this, too, is being spun as a reason to bring in exclusion zones. A recent item on RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime programme attributed the low numbers of GPs willing to perform abortions to fear of protest rather than conscientious objection or moral discomfort.
Although doctors do not have to provide abortions themselves, uncertainty hangs over those who will refuse to refer patients for them. Dr Andrew O’Regan, senior lecturer in General Practice at the University of Limerick and an anti-repeal campaigner, is deeply concerned about potentially severe sanctions. “At a quick glance, one might think not much has changed since the referendum,” he told me. “But if you scratch the surface you will find a wounded, divided medical profession. The saddest change is that babies are now being terminated in the very places that were until recently tasked with keeping them safe.”
Although elsewhere people have lived with this reality for decades, in Ireland until very recently we could be confident that doctors would “first do no harm”.
Where next, then, for the pro-life movement? First, we may benefit from having our eyes opened. The referendum’s outcome showed that there is no silent majority that is on our side. Since the Eighth entered the Constitution in 1983, almost all pro-life campaigning has focused on protecting an existing majority. Even in last year’s campaign, the line was that the proposal went too far for the electorate. But it’s now clear that, as the Irish Times columnist Una Mullally says, there is no pro-life “middle Ireland” any more. Politicians such as Simon Harris and Leo Varadkar began their political careers as pro-lifers. When they changed their principles, they were in tune with the times: nearly 90 per cent of 18-to 25-year-olds supported Repeal in the referendum.
The referendum result was horrible, but the campaign brought pro-lifers together, including newcomers, in a titanic effort to save the Eighth, and it generated a new energy that hasn’t dissipated. Some of the people mobilised by the referendum have been trying to think more creatively about Irish pro-life advocacy.
Some favour going back to basics, making the central arguments against abortion clearly and simply. Others admire the expectation-confounding style of groups like Rehumanize International, Secular Pro-Life and New Wave Feminists, whose consistent life ethic includes many left-wing positions. Still others want a renewed focus on practical aid to women in crisis pregnancies, or to put their energy into the new pro-life party, Aontú, led by former Sinn Fein TD (Teachta Dála, or member of the Irish parliament), Peadar Tóibín. Aontú, meaning “unity”, aims to combine support for a united Ireland and a centre-left approach to economic justice with seeking incremental legal change in a pro-life direction.
Others are placing their hopes in religious renewal rather than purely secular cultural change and arguments. Though the major pro-life groups are not religiously affiliated, the decline of the Irish Catholic Church was unquestionably a major factor in Varadkar’s “quiet revolution”. Since the referendum, groups of young Catholics are trying to make their faith more central to their lives, and are exploring alternatives to the dominant way of life that characterises affluent, liberal, capitalist countries. That way of life – it now seems clear – leads inexorably to abortion on demand. There never really was an Irish counterexample, just an Irish delay. Those conversations are taking place in houses, at prayer meetings, and on podcasts.
The Irish exceptionalism I grew up with is no more. But while we may no longer have reasons to be proud, we still have reasons to hope.
Ben Conroy is currently undertaking an MA in philosophy at University College Dublin. He studied PPE at Oxford and was co-president of Oxford Students for Life
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