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Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries: Ireland's Referendum on Abortion, 2018

At 10.00 pm on Thursday, 24 May 2018, a prayer vigil before a monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament began at the Church of St. Jude in Templeogue, Dublin. Known as the “Pray for the Protection of Life 24-Hour Adoration,” it continued until 10.00 pm the following evening when polls closed on Ireland’s referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, or Article 40.3.3.

The Amendment, in place since 1983, recognized the right to life of the unborn child – in effect, a prohibition on abortion. Although abortion had always been illegal in independent Ireland, the 8th Amendment made it unconstitutional and placed a major obstacle in the path of change. Legislation on the question was severe and uncompromising. A woman procuring an abortion faced a possible 14-year prison term and the penalty was the same for anyone assisting her. Moreover, it was illegal to provide women experiencing unwanted pregnancies with information respecting foreign clinics where abortions were available; technically, it was even forbidden to travel abroad for the procedure.

The prohibition on abortion, whether in the pre- or post-1983 form, reflected the power and influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland and its ability to impose its moral code on the public, harnessing the coercive power of a compliant state in doing so. As a general rule, the political class was notoriously deferential to the bishops and it was not unknown for presidents to offer the allegiance of the Irish people to the Pope. A few brief examples will suffice to show clerical power in action as well as its waning over time.

The Church had always condemned birth control. Consequently, contraceptive devices as well as information on the topic were unavailable for most of the first half century of Irish independence. Humanae Vitae, the controversial Papal encyclical of 1968 that affirmed the condemnation, was unhelpful. Yet, throughout the 1970s there was persistent agitation against the archaic laws that denied citizens rights that were available elsewhere in Europe. And the laws were openly violated. Family planning clinics opened in several urban areas and those who wished to purchase condoms just took the train to Belfast. The law changed in 1979 to allow contraceptives to married couples with a prescription and a further liberalization in 1985 made them available to anyone over 18 years.

The constitutional ban on divorce, strongly supported by the Church, proved more difficult to dispose of. A referendum in 1986 that proposed to repeal the ban, failed to receive approval. Meanwhile, a harsh censorship of books and films remained largely in effect to “protect” the people from anything that might disturb Catholic sensibilities. For example, the Monty Python movies, The Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983), both of which satirized religion, were banned for several years.

But let’s return to the abortion question. The first serious crack in the system of controls and prohibitions appeared in 1992 when a referendum struck down the ban on information about foreign abortion clinics and the ineffectual ban on travel abroad to terminate a pregnancy. The referendum followed the shocking “X Case,” which involved a 14-year-old girl made pregnant because of rape by a man known to her family and who wished to travel abroad for an abortion.

1992 was an important year in other respects too since it witnessed a number of scandals that challenged the Church’s moral authority. The first revelations about the slave labour of “fallen women” in Magdalen asylums appeared that year and they continued to make headlines for many years afterwards as a lengthy campaign for compensation unfolded by those brutalized by the nuns who ran the institutions. And there were exposés of abuse in Church-run orphanages and industrial schools, as well as the depredations of pedophile priests and religious brothers. The sexual misadventures of the Bishop of Galway also came to light at the time. A second referendum that lifted the constitutional ban on divorce in 1995 showed Church influence on the wane.

During the summer of 2012, the twentieth anniversary of the “X Case,” the Abortion Rights Campaign was established to push for repeal of the 8th Amendment. Although little noticed at first, the movement acquired momentum by another tragedy some months later. In October Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, found herself suffering from a dangerous sepsis infection while pregnant. Admitted to a hospital in Galway, she asked for a termination that would save her life. The doctors, fearing prosecution, refused. Savita died. A large demonstration in central Dublin of more than 20,000 people followed with participants chanting “never again.” Some demonstrators carried placards with the words “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries.” It was a telling phrase that pointed directly at the principal impediment to women’s control of their  own bodies.

In spite of the best of the best efforts of the anti-abortion movement, backed by shadowy Catholic entities such as Opus Dei and the Iona Institute, the political will to defy the Church strengthened. Ireland was more educated, prosperous, cosmopolitan and committed to modernity.

By 2016 polls showed growing public support for another referendum on the 8th Amendment and  pro-choice Teachtaí Dála (members of parliament) in the major political parties began to speak out on the issue. Clare Daly, an independent TD, had campaigned for years against the ban on abortion, especially in what were called distress cases such as those involving rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities, and risks to a woman’s life or health. Recognizing the political momentum, the Fine Gael government led by Enda Kenny established a public consultation procedure. The Citizens’ Assembly, which met between November 2016 and April 2017, consisted of a chair, Justice Mary Laffoy, and 99 citizens chosen at random.  Its deliberations convinced the  government that public views on abortion had changed. This was followed by a second consultation by a Joint Oireachtas Committee which met between September and December 2017. (The Oireachtas refers to the two houses of parliament, the Dáil and the Seanad). The Oireachtas Committee, chaired by Senator Catherine Noone, consisted of twelve women and ten men. These deliberations, an extraordinary exercise in democratic consultation, showed the need for a new referendum and outlined the shape of the legislation that would follow were the 8th Amendment repealed.

In 2017 Leo Varadkar became leader of the ruling Fine Gael party and Taoiseach (prime minister). Varadkar, 38 at the time, was openly gay and of mixed Irish-Indian heritage. A 2015 referendum had approved same-sex marriage – Ireland being the first country to take such a course by popular vote. Eamonn DeValera’s Ireland of the 1940s with its frugal comforts, devout peasants, and innocent maidens dancing a jig at the crossroads had been buried for good. Bon débarras.

During the early months of 2018 Varadkar’s government acted swiftly to implement the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee. A referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment was scheduled for 25 May. There was some urgency in the matter since Pope Francis was coming to Ireland in August and it was feared that his visit might influence the outcome were the vote held later. A draft of the proposed legislation that would be required in the event of a repeal was made public. It would allow abortion for up to twelve weeks from conception without restriction and with certain restrictions during the months that followed. Although the twelve weeks unrestricted access was fairly standard in abortion legislation elsewhere in Western Europe, it was a controversial proposal and not supported initially by everyone who supported repeal of the 8th Amendment. And it became a target for those opposed to repeal. But it was a gutsy move by the government and made it perfectly clear what would happen following a constitutional change.

As the government’s intention became clear, a number of bodies that had worked over the years for women’s rights, such as the Abortion Rights Campaign, the Irish Family Planning Association, and the National Women’s Council, came together to form Together for Yes, an umbrella organization that would take the lead in persuading voters to repeal the 8th Amendment. Its eight-member executive consisted of seven women and one man and its campaign chair was Deirdre Duffy, a lawyer. These details may seem trivial, but they serve to underline the critical role women’s leadership played in making the referendum happen and in seeing it through.

In the referendum voters were asked to approve the 36th Amendment to the Constitution, effectively repealing Article 40.3.3, the ban on abortion. Marking a ballot paper with “Yes” meant you favoured repealing the ban; a “No” vote signified support for the status quo. The “Yes” and “No” campaigns were the popular names given to the opposing organizations that worked to influence voters in the months preceding the referendum. “Tá” and “Níl” were the equivalent words in Irish, although they are not a direct translation from the English because of structural differences in the two languages.

During the initial part of the campaign, both sides competed in sticking up posters in public places. “Love both” was one of the slogans on the “No” posters and was accompanied by photos of mothers holding their babies. Images of foetuses were also prominently employed with texts such as “My heart is beating; don’t stop it.” And foreign abortion statistics were frequently cited: “95 percent of babies aborted in England are healthy. Don’t bring it here.” “Abortion: A licence to kill,” was another phrase used widely. The “Yes” posters were more subdued and less emotional, emphasizing compassion, women’s health, and their right to control their bodies.

When my wife, Jane, and I arrived in Dublin on 6 May, the campaign was in full swing. Polls showed the “Yes” side with a solid lead, but “No” was gaining ground in some measure due to effective on-line advertising. Then the “No” momentum received a setback. Facebook banned  advertising paid from foreign sources and Google refused all advertising on the subject regardless of the source. It appears that well-funded lobby groups such as Americans United for Life had been meddling in the campaign. No surprise here; they brag on their website of having influenced the outcome of the 1983 referendum that had put the constitutional ban on abortion in place. I did encounter quite a few enthusiastic young American Christians distributing “No” leaflets on the streets of Dublin, but their efforts were often greeted with scepticism.

Throughout the campaign polls showed that a significant number of voters were undecided and winning them over with argument and evidence became the object of both sides. In this the “Yes” campaign had one great advantage: the countless women who had experienced unwanted pregnancies and who had gone abroad to deliver their babies or to have abortions and were now prepared to speak about it. They told their stories in the media as the campaign progressed and they spoke from the audience at the televised debates. They were determined that others would not suffer as they had done. Their stories underlined an important point that the campaign for repeal was able to make repeatedly: the constitutional ban did not prevent Irish women from having abortions; it simply forced them to go abroad in order to do so. Britain had legalized abortion in 1967 and it was the destination of choice. In fact, since 1983 170,000 Irish women had gone abroad for terminations and in 2016 alone, 3,265 did so. It was a strange irony that they had to turn to the former colonial master for assistance in time of need.

The “No” campaign had no such stories. They could offer little beyond their talking points about the constitutional rights of the unborn and alarmist attacks on the proposed legislation that would allow abortion for up to twelve weeks after conception. They had nothing to say to women experiencing unwanted or crisis pregnancies. In the televised debates, they often sounded indifferent to such women. Moreover, their slogan, “Love both” rang of hypocrisy considering their Church’s history of dealing with so-called “fallen women” and their children. And another convent scandal was brewing that almost matched the Magdalen asylums in its horrors.

Up until the 1960s, women with unwanted pregnancies and without the resources to travel abroad for the duration, often found themselves confined to a network of 14 “mother and baby homes” run by congregations of women religious. One of the most notorious among them, that run by the Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam, Co. Galway, made headlines in 2014 when a local historian discovered the remains of almost 800 children dumped in a septic tank beneath where the building had been. The scandal prompted the government to appoint a commission to investigate the operation of these institutions – expected to report in 2019. Alison O’Reilly’s book on the subject, My Name is Bridget, which appeared in April 2018 as the referendum campaign was underway, made “Love both” sound particularly absurd.

While both campaigns had physicians backing them, the majority of the profession supported the “Yes” side and their evidence was compelling. Dr. Peter Boylan, Chair of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, played a prominent role for “Yes,” even participating in one of the televised debates. A campaign brochure quoted him on the Savita Halappanavar case as follows: “That a woman should die in pregnancy is the absolute lowest bar we should aim for in a modern, civilized society. Savita should be alive today and we should have never heard of her.”

The leaders of all major political parties supported repeal of the 8th Amendment, although some elected representatives were on the other side. This was particularly true for Fianna Fáil, the socially conservative party founded by De Valera. Simon Harris, Minister of Health, took the lead for the Fine Gael government in the campaign and was a very effective voice for “Yes,” especially in the debates. Regina Doherty, Minister for Social Protection, was also formidable. Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin, was a powerful campaigner for “Yes” and did much to improve the image of her party.

One unexpected development was the return of hundreds of immigrants from abroad to vote. Participation was allowed for anyone who had not been away for more than 18 months. Overwhelmingly supporting the “Yes” side, many wore t-shirts proclaiming “We will travel so you don’t have to.”

The Catholic Church played a much more subdued role in the campaign than it had done in the 1983 referendum. “No” posters were placed on church railings and speakers for that side were permitted to address those attending Mass. They were, however, preaching to the converted and a much diminished one at that. Weekly Mass attendance, around 91 percent in 1973, had fallen to 30 percent by 2011 and was much lower in Dublin where it was down to 18 percent. The bishops did issue guidance on the matter and their views were reported in the media. The last to weigh in was Eamonn Martin, Archbishop of Armagh. His piece under the title “Eighth Amendment is a declaration of tenderness,” was published in the Irish Times on 22 May, shortly before the vote. Martin argued that there was nothing more tender and beautiful than the intimate love between a mother and her child and that the 8th Amendment recognized this. But he had nothing of substance to offer women experiencing unwanted or crisis pregnancies except to say that we should reach out and support them.

On the evening of the vote Jane and I had dinner in central Dublin with friends visiting from Canada. As we walked home later a young man, seeing our “Tá” badges, stopped to ask is we had heard the news. We hadn’t. Exit polls were showing a landslide for “Yes,” he said. He was right. When the votes were counted the following day, the tally was 66.4 percent in favour of repealing the 8th Amendment; 33.6 percent were opposed. Rural Donegal was the only constituency to return a majority for “No.” While the “Yes” majority was higher in Dublin than elsewhere, an anticipated urban-rural split had not materialized. But there was a generational divide: a majority of those over age 65 supported “No.”

The Catholic bishops were devastated by the result, some fearing that the Church was increasingly irrelevant in peoples’ lives. Archbishop Martin was one of the first to express dismay, saying that Ireland had “obliterated” the right to life of the unborn. Kevin Doran, the Bishop of Elphin, who seems to live in the 1950s, told those who had voted “Yes” that they should consider going to Confession. There is no evidence that he was taken up on this.

The “No” campaigners were also aghast at the outcome, but some vowed to fight on and oppose the proposed abortion legislation. They could hardly have been encouraged when several elected representatives who had supported their cause now declared their acquiescence in the will of the people and pledged not to play an obstructionist role when the legislation came forward. The convincing margin of victory for “Yes” was decisive in shaping their views.

The referendum result was a triumph for the Varadkar government which wasted little time in preparing the anticipated abortion legislation. There is a curious irony here that should be noted. When Britain legalized abortion in 1967, it did not apply the measure to its territoire d’outre mer, Northern Ireland, because of opposition from both native and colonist communities. Assuming that the Republic adopts its proposed legislation, we may see women from the North taking the road to Dublin to procure terminations, a sort of reversal of what happened in the 1970s when women from the South went to Belfast to purchase condoms.

The “Yes” victory appears to have created an impetus to further modernization. The government is making noises about changes to school system, which still operates on a 19th century voluntarist basis with managerial structures that accord a significant role to the Catholic Church (See my essay, “An Irish Education Remembered,” on this website). And there is talk about another referendum to deal with Article 40.6.1 (i) of the Constitution which makes the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter an offence punishable by law.

Being in Ireland on 25th May 2018 was an unforgettable experience. The country that I had grown up in, insular, priest-ridden, and suspicious of change, had finally faded away. It was easy to imagine what it had been like to be in Paris in 1789 or in Havana in 1959. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”

Posted: 13 August 2018


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