On May 25 2018, Ireland voted by a huge margin to remove the 8th Amendment from her constitution and bring abortion on demand to her shores. The first nation to implement explicit constitutional protections for pre-born children became the first nation to eliminate them by popular demand. Progressive leaders, journalists and abortion activists worldwide erupted in congratulations and celebration.
Since then, Ireland’s decades-long abortion debate has been reduced to a simple, false narrative, promoted by the mainstream media and a plethora of books: that a group of plucky progressives and hard-working feminists finally dragged Ireland into modernity. The real story, of the exceptional people who fought to defend Ireland’s constitutional protections for pre-born children and saved hundreds of thousands of lives as a result, is one I try to tell in my recent book Patriots: the Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement.
It is now widely accepted, for example, that the 8th Amendment was an ugly hangover from Catholic Ireland’s supposedly dark past.
The truth is that a small group of prescient pro-life activists realised, after the US Supreme Court legalised abortion in 1973 with Roe v Wade, that Ireland’s courts were likely to deliver a similar ruling. The incredible story of how a handful of activists facilitated a national referendum in 1983 through brilliant politicking and grassroots activism deserves a book of its own. As Irish journalist Rosanna Cooney begrudgingly noted: “To forget the sophistication and efficacy of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, which orchestrated a ban on abortion in Ireland, is to forget one of the great political coups of the 20th century.”
The key reason for the movement’s success was that they put boots on the ground, every day, in a country where abortion was already illegal. They kept abortion at the forefront of Irish politics while simultaneously reminding the public why abortion is so horrific and thus why the 8th Amendment was so essential. This two-front strategy stymied the efforts of abortion activists, the press, the politicians, and international institutions for decades.
It was not until the tragic 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, which was universally framed as a direct result of the 8th Amendment, that the Irish public could be persuaded that the amendment endangered women’s lives. The truth – that being denied an abortion had nothing to do with Savita’s death from septicemia – was lost in the media firestorm.
Ireland’s 8th Amendment had been a key target for the international abortion industry for decades: the Planned Parenthood lawyer Julie Kay once described Ireland as “the jewel in the crown of the pro-life movement”. Activists swore that if abortion were banned, women would die in back alleys, maternal healthcare standards would plunge, and Margaret Atwood’s Gilead would become reality. Instead, Ireland boasted a better standard of maternal healthcare than in the UK (where abortion was legal), a high birthrate, and an extraordinarily low abortion rate. Gilead – and back-alley carnage – failed to materialise. The very existence of Ireland’s pro-life regime revealed to the world that the abortion industry and her allies were lying. There was a better way. The Irish showed us all what it was.
Ireland’s 35 years of legal protection for children in the womb still shine as an example of what a society can be when it refuses to sacrifice the rights of some for the alleged good of others. The Irish pro-life movement showed us that great things can be accomplished with tenacity, conviction, and back-breaking hard work.
Pro-lifers knocked on tens of thousands of doors, handed out millions of educational leaflets, and set up displays in city centres for decades. They hosted medical conferences that underlined that abortion is unnecessary for holistic maternal healthcare. Most importantly, with billboards, school presentations, literature, and annual roadshows across the country, they made sure that the public could not forget what the debate was all about: the physical destruction of a precious human being developing in the womb. Their pro-life consensus lasted for as long as it did because it was fiercely and constantly defended.
For those reasons alone, this story deserved to be told, and deserves to be heard.