The decision of 66.4% of the electorate to repeal the Eighth Amendment marks the end of the constitutional right to life. However, it does not mark the end of the right to life, a right which the Irish state never created, but which it merely acknowledged.
Nor does it mark the end of the pro-life organisations, which have fought a decades-long battle to prevent abortion-on-demand being introduced here in Ireland.
Deflated and downcast though many pro-life people may be, if we are to ensure that the worst abuses of the abortion culture which has grown up in Britain and elsewhere do not become prevalent here, the pro-life movement needs to focus its energies on renewed campaigning, on harnessing the efforts of the tens of thousands of dedicated campaigners and on educating people about the value of life, and the importance of protecting it.
The Referendum Is Over, but the Campaigning Isn’t
Very few observers predicted a Yes victory on the scale which we witnessed on May 25th.
Even with the combined weight of the political, media and cultural establishment, most predicted only a narrow victory for the Yes side. This would inevitably be followed by a battle over the Government’s proposed legislation, and over whether or not the proposal for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks would be enacted.
The two-to-one winning margin changed this equation entirely: there can be no doubting the public’s desire for significant legislative change.
There is now no chance of stopping the main components of the proposal from becoming law: unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, abortion in cases where the mother’s life or health is at risk up until viability and abortion up until birth in cases of life-limiting conditions, or to use the propaganda euphemism de rigueur, ‘fatal foetal abnormalities.’
Many politicians within Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil who mildly opposed repeal, or who said little or nothing about the referendum, will be eager to get beyond the issue as soon as possible. A speedy passage of an abortion bill into law would be the best way to do this.
Moreover, with every constituency except Donegal returning a Yes vote, these same politicians will want very little to do with the Pro Life Campaign or the Life Institute as the organisations move into lobbying mode. These same politicians will also be more willing to toe the line laid down by Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, and vote for whatever bill is proposed without much consideration or complaint.
That is the bad news; and it is catastrophic. There is no point in sugar-coating it. The monstrous decision which was taken on May 25th will in the fullness of time lead to the killing of tens of thousands of Ireland’s unborn children.
Amend, Not Obstruct
But not all is lost.
The bill to legalise abortion will have to be examined in detail at Dáil, Seanad and Committee stage, in a process which will play out in the autumn and winter.
Even the strongest pro-life advocates such as Mattie McGrath have acknowledged that the core proposals which Simon Harris has proposed cannot be stopped. But McGrath and others have also made it clear that they will be tabling amendments to the legislation.
Such amendments can be hugely consequential, particularly in those areas where the Government’s proposals are yet to be fleshed out.
With dozens of pro-life politicians within both Houses of the Oireachtas, it is absolutely vital that they scrutinise each aspect of the proposed legislation, and that they force votes – and demand answers – on points where Harris wishes he could refuse to provide them.
Normally, the Leader of the Opposition could be relied upon to perform this task with any new legislation. In this case, Martin’s only criticisms of the Government will be that they are not moving fast enough, and not being radical enough.
Since the vote, he has already called for the Dáil to postpone its summer break to allow the legislation to be rushed through, and for the new law to allow the Republic to become the destination of choice for Northern Irish women seeking abortions. This pattern will be repeated in the autumn also.
Independent deputies Mattie McGrath and Michael Collins are already calling for an amendment to ensure that abortions are not allowed following the diagnosis of conditions such as Down Syndrome, an amendment which would place Simon Harris in a difficult position.
Harris managed to dismiss concerns about abortion in cases of disability during the referendum campaign, but he will have a hard time explaining why he opposes legislative protection for children with Down Syndrome.
This presents us with a clear opportunity.
Propose an amendment focused clearly on one particular issue, build a campaign around it at grassroots level and on social media, and force Harris and Varadkar to take a position.
Focus should be on making the Government state explicitly what conditions are considered ‘fatal foetal abnormalities’ and why. Furthermore the Government should be pressured to guarantee that the remains of aborted unborns will be treated with respect, and not sold for profit or burnt in incineration units as has occurred elsewhere.
Some of these conversations will be uncomfortable for the Government, and it must be said, for the pro-life politicians who have to raise them. Good. Abortion is uncomfortable – particularly for the baby involved – and the sooner people face up to the realities of what they have voted for, the better.
While the referendum was a landslide victory for Yes, a mere 52% of voters are in favour of abortion-on-demand up to 12 weeks. That leaves us with at least some room for manoeuvre.
In the best-case scenario, we will end up with legislation which is no more permissive than that which the Government has already proposed. Compared to what those who fought to save the 8th set out to do, this can hardly be considered a victory. But every constructive amendment which makes it into law could change hearts, and save lives.
These are battles which can be won and are worth fighting, but cannot be won without boots on the ground.
Throughout the referendum, the prevalence of a motivated, dedicated grassroots movement which dwarfed the Together for Yes canvass teams in size and reach gave many people reason to hope for an electoral shock which never materialised.
These volunteers came from all walks of life, and included people of all ages, united as they were in the defence of the rights of the most vulnerable people in our society. However, in the aftermath of the result these supporters have been left feeling dejected, and in many cases, despondent.
The Need to Educate the Young
One of the truly depressing outcomes of the recent referendum was how young voters overwhelmingly voted for abortion. The Yes side gained 87.6% support among those aged 18-24, and 84.6% support amongst those aged 25-34.
Such margins make for chilling reading, in light of the fact that our strongest support came from the oldest demographic, people who by definition will not be with us for much longer.
These young people came of age in an Ireland where the Church’s moral authority was collapsing, or had already collapsed. When it came to forming their views on whether an unborn child was really human, and whether he or she should have protection in law, many of these young voters would have never been exposed to the pro-life viewpoint before this referendum.
Few parents speak to their children about these matters. Church attendance is constantly dwindling, and is extremely rare among the young. Many Catholic school-teachers are reluctant to broach the subject, and with Catholic schools sure to become rarer and rarer, that trend will exacerbate. The media in Ireland is resolutely pro-choice. So are the arts and popular culture: witness the legion of minor celebrities who queued up to endorse the repeal campaign.
More importantly, exit poll results showed clearly that the referendum was lost before the official campaign even began – with 75% of voters saying that they always knew how they were going to vote, compared to a mere 12% who said they decided during the campaign.
The strong support for stripping the right to life of the unborn from our Constitution was built up over years of steady campaigning on the part of activists, politicians and media outlets. They relentlessly pushed for the legalisation of abortion, while successfully painting Ireland as a dangerous place for pregnant women, in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.
With media bias endemic as always, and the cultural and political establishment virtually unanimous in its support for abortion, it’s not going to get any easier to make the pro-life case, and yet we have to become much better at making it, and soon.
The rise of the internet allows us to go around the establishment media and reach people directly, and it was the success of the pro-life organisations in doing this which caused Google to ban all advertising during the referendum, at the behest of a nervous Yes campaign.
That ban is not permanent, and as new platforms and technologies emerge, the pro-life movement needs to get better at explaining the humanity of the unborn child, the supports which are in place to help mothers in difficult pregnancies, and, yes, the reality of what abortion actually entails as well.
Personal stories conferred an enormous advantage on the Yes campaign in the past few years, but for every one of them offered by an advocate of abortion, there is at least one more untold story to be heard, one more Mary Kenny, one more Gavin Boyne, one more Kathleen Rose Harkin.
Just as importantly, the pro-life movement needs to be ready to raise awareness of the abuses of the abortion industry which is about to be introduced here, an industry which has repeatedly shown how merciless and incompetent it is in other jurisdictions.
Sadly, these scandals will be taking place in a hospital or clinic near you soon. When they do, those who truly care for women and their unborn children will need to have strategies in place to ensure that the full facts are made known, whether journalists are willing to write about them or not.
Greater Nobility Hath No Movement
To conclude, it is worth reflecting on those whose hearts are broken by the referendum result, and the fate which lies in store for many entirely innocent pre-born people as a result of it.
In particular, we should consider the young women and men who became involved in the movement for the first time, and who fought hard to preserve the constitutional right to life. They are in all honesty highly unusual.
Most of those who become active in politics or social movements do so at least in part to gain something for themselves, their families or their loved ones. Activists generally want expanded rights for themselves, better supports for their families, or greater funding for their chosen service: not that this is at all to be bemoaned. It’s how politics works after all.
Yet the pro-life movement is not motivated by such factors.
To be part of it always involves some reputational cost. Being openly pro-life in workplaces, campuses and social settings attracts not praise, but opprobrium.
There’s no question of there being personal gain, either. Those who are pro-life will not suffer directly due to abortion: they have already been born.
Instead, the pro-life movement is made up of countless individuals who make great sacrifices for people whom they do not know, and will likely never meet.
And it is that, whether in victory or defeat, which makes them truly remarkable.