This coming Friday, May 25, 2018, Irish citizens will decide in a referendum whether to scrap a constitutional amendment that protects unborn babies’ right to life. If they vote “Yes,” the government will change Ireland’s status from that of one of the last bastions of pro-life laws in Europe to one of Europe’s most permissive abortion regimes overnight. Despite the odds stacked against them, Irish pro-lifers have had significant success in convincing many of their countrymen to vote for life. However, polling still shows a lead for those favoring a repeal. Ireland needs our prayers and support.
In 1983, the Eighth Amendment was added to the Constitution of Ireland, after 66.9 percent of Irish voters decided to add the following language to their nation’s basic legal document:
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 practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
However, in recent years there have been increasing calls to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Last June, on his first day as Taoiseach (prime minister of the Republic of Ireland), Leo Varadkar said that a referendum would be held on the matter. Since then, he has made it clear that if the Irish decide to repeal the constitutional protections, he will not only legalize abortion on demand during the first trimester, but also, shockingly, late-term abortions “in very specific circumstances.”
Although they have the bulk of the media, political, and cultural establishment against them, the “Save the 8th” campaign has nonetheless been working hard to defeat Goliath over the past several months, canvassing, communicating through posters and billboards, holding pro-life rallies, and reaching out to Irish voters on social media. “We were out first and reached more people than the ‘Yes’ campaign, and that’s pretty much acknowledged by the media and everyone else here,” says Niamh Uí Bhriain, spokesperson of the “Save the 8th” campaign. “We have at least three thousand volunteers, with more joining everyday. Just to give you some perspective, the population of Ireland is 4.5 million. The population of the United States is 320 million. If you do the math, that’s about 200,000 volunteers in the United States. That’s a huge number. Political parties would never have as many volunteers.”
Uí Bhriain notes that once the Taoiseach announced the referendum, it became very clear that his intention was not only to repeal the Eighth Amendment, but to legalize abortion as well. Since then, “Save the 8th” has worked to inform the Irish of what will happen if they vote in favor of repeal. “The government’s proposal is very radical. It seeks to legalize abortion on demand in the first twelve weeks, and on health grounds up through six months of the baby’s life. In addition to that, it seeks to legalize abortion in the case of fetal disability right up through all nine months of pregnancy,” she explains.
So far, “Save the 8th” has successfully narrowed the repeal side’s lead. For example, a December 2017 poll for the Irish Times showed that 62 percent of the Irish were in favor of repealing the Eighth Amendment, compared to just 26 percent who did not. A May 14-15, 2018, poll for the same newspaper by the same research firm, however, showed that that lead has melted from 36 to just 12 percent (with 44 percent of the Irish favoring a repeal and 32 percent against).
Seventeen percent of those polled, however, are undecided. In the coming days, the “Save the 8th” campaign plans to reach as many undecided voters as it can. According to Uí Bhriain, “very often in referendums undecided voters tend to fall towards the status quo. I think most undecided voters are very reluctant to go in and vote for a proposal so extreme.”
Accurately or not, across the West abortion is frequently viewed as a distinctly Catholic issue. Today, however, much of Irish society has a conflicted relationship to the faith of its fathers. In the 1990s, many scandals related to the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of minors involving the Irish clergy were revealed; for many Irish, the fact that prelates were often aware of these abuses yet did nothing to stop them in particular eroded their trust in the Catholic Church. According to Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, the number of Irish Catholics attending Mass weekly plummeted from an impressive 90 percent in 1984 to just 18 percent in 2011. Other studies estimate weekly Mass attendance at between 30 and 35 percent, higher than 18 percent, but still showing a major decline.
In other words, in order to win the referendum, Irish pro-lifers must strike the right balance regarding Catholicism. Drumming up religious overtones could easily turn away the country’s many disaffected lapsed Catholics, but, on the other hand, in a tight campaign the minority of Irish churchgoers, even if they are just 18 percent of the population, could prove decisive.
“For the groups that are engaged in this campaign, abortion is seen as a human rights issue. The right to life of every person needs to be respected by people of every faith,” Uí Bhriain says, adding that her campaign has focused on the secular, scientific aspects of the abortion debate. “I would think that for a number people in Ireland, perhaps many of those who are most engaged in favor of abortion, whatever the Church is for, they are against,” she acknowledges, nonetheless noting that the number of such voters is “very small.”
The Irish bishops, however, have strongly come out against repealing the Eighth Amendment. In April, three Irish bishops issued pastoral letters, urging their faithful to vote “No.” Archbishop Martin of Dublin likewise came out in defense of the Eighth Amendment. Although the American reader might think that there is nothing newsworthy about bishops urging Catholics to vote for life, in Ireland this was not at all so clear. In 2015, the Irish voted in favor of legalizing same-sex “marriage” in a referendum; Ireland’s Catholic bishops did not publicly oppose it.
If Ireland votes to legalize abortion on Friday, this would be a defeat not only for the Irish pro-life movement, but also for pro-lifers across Europe. Of the twenty-eight members of the European Union, Ireland is currently one of just three countries along with Malta (where abortion is completely banned) and Poland (where abortion is legal only when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or health, when it results from rape or incest, and in the case of fetal malformation) where abortion is not legal on demand.
Although the “Save the 8th” campaign has made impressive headway in recent months, Niamh Uí Bhriain still asks for American pro-lifers’ prayers. The “Yes” side nonetheless retains a lead in the polls, even if it is declining, and the stakes are high. In the next several days, we should all take time to pray, perhaps through the intercession of St. Patrick and Our Lady of Knock, that the Irish choose the right to life.