In Ireland, the unborn are protected by the national constitution. But that could change very soon.
Abortion has been illegal in Ireland at least since 1861. The British ruled over the Irish isle at the time and had enacted a law that made abortion an offense throughout the United Kingdom, punishable by life in prison.
Fast-forward to 1983. The US, UK and other western European countries had liberalized their laws on abortion.
But Catholic Ireland went in the opposite direction. That same year, Irish voters took part in a national referendum and they said "yes" to a constitutional amendment banning abortion by extending legal protections to the unborn. Nearly two-thirds of those who voted were in favor of what has come to be known as the Eighth Amendment. No other European country’s constitution has such a strict clause outlawing abortion in nearly all cases.
“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,” reads Article 40.3.3.
Depending on who is talking, the Eighth Amendment is either a national moment of moral clarity to be preserved, or it’s a grave moral failure that must be scrapped.
Opponents of abortion say the Eighth Amendment is something Ireland should be proud of because it safeguards the rights of the most vulnerable in society from the shifting winds of modern-day social values.
Abortion rights advocates believe the constitutional ban needs to be repealed, so the country can continue to climb out from under the traditional religious values that dominated Ireland for so long.
On May 25, Irish voters will get to have their say on abortion once again. The question for this national referendum is whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment. If they do go for repeal, that would open the door in unprecedented ways to legal abortion in Ireland.
The campaigns for and against repeal are in full swing.
‘It’s happening every day’
On a recent evening in the town center of Sligo, a small seaport on the northwest coast of Ireland, 23-year-old Rachel Brady handed out leaflets calling for a "yes" vote. People in rural parts of the country are not as conservative on this issue as some might think, Brady said.
“They’re really happy that they’re getting a chance to have a vote and to have their say on this. And they think it’s time for change because they’re aware that abortion is a reality in Ireland,” Brady said. “It’s happening every day.”
Despite the ban, Irish women are getting abortions. An estimated 10 to 12 of them travel every day to the United Kingdom, or other parts of Europe, where abortion is legal.
One of Brady’s colleagues was handing out flowers in front of the Sligo post office. Others held pink signs that read, “Women’s right to choose,” and “Vote yes for abortion rights.” Many passersby smiled in apparent approval.
But some stopped to engage and even challenge Brady and her colleagues.
Toy salesman Andrew McCormack of Belfast said he would not be voting in the referendum because he’s a British citizen from Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, he had a point to make.
“Listen, I’m talking as an uncle of a 13-year-old who got pregnant,” McCormack said to Brady. “I’m not debating. I just think that life is so phenomenally important, as is the life of the woman carrying it.”
“I’m not judge and jury, but come on,” said McCormack, who described himself as a religious person. “There has to be a love and a concern for something that is unbelievably fantastic in the nature and nurture of that little child that has started to grow inside that woman.”
A few minutes later, a married couple — with three children back home — who were in Sligo for a shopping weekend, stopped to make a similar point. They said people in Ireland have a right to their own opinion but “abortion on demand” is something they both would oppose. They said that they will likely be voting "no" in the referendum.
Some of what is going here is about religious belief.
At the end of Sunday mass at St. John’s Catholic Cathedral in Limerick, a city in Ireland’s midwest, Marian McDonnell said the referendum is “very big deal” for her. She said she had not really discussed the issue with family and friends, but she knows exactly how she will be voting.
“I’m going to vote to retain the Eighth Amendment,” McDonnell said, to keep abortion illegal. That view is rooted in her Catholic faith. But she said it is personal, too.
“I had an ectopic pregnancy,” McDonnell said. “I could have died.”
But still, she said she never thought about getting an abortion. And today, she is very content with the decision she made. “The baby was born, and it had no chance of living outside the womb,” she said.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I think it’s God’s way. I think he created life, from the womb to the tomb. That’s what I believe,” McDonnell said.
‘How’s the fetus doing?’
The Irish public knows very well where Catholic leaders stand on the issue of abortion. But the bishops in Ireland have not taken the lead in the public campaigns against repeal.
This comes as little surprise to Bill Dailey, an American Catholic priest and a law professor with the University of Notre Dame, who has been living and working in Dublin since 2016.
“Ireland’s experience of [the] church credibility crisis was 'Boston on steroids,'” Dailey said, referring to the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal that broke in Boston.
The Irish version of that scandal was much bigger, and it has led much of the Irish public — which is still overwhelmingly Catholic — to lose faith in the church as a moral authority. But Dailey said Catholic leaders should still speak out against abortion, though they might not want to frame it in religious terms.
“This doesn’t depend on any particularly Roman teaching. It doesn’t depend upon anything that we believe, in particular, about Jesus Christ,” said Dailey, who founded the Notre Dame – Newman Centre for Faith and Reason in Dublin.
The Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion is “a teaching about human rights that’s accessible to human reason, as long as one acknowledges is that what we have in the womb is a human life,” Dailey said.
“Most people do understand that. We all know that when our friends are pregnant, we don’t say, ‘How’s the fetus doing?’ We say, "How’s the baby?""
The case of ‘Miss Y’
Advocates for legalizing abortion in Ireland also talk about human rights. And they are quick to point to one of few highly publicized cases. The death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 is probably the most widely known case outside of Ireland.
But there are others. One of them involved a woman who is referred to in news reports as “Miss Y,” for legal reasons.
She was an asylum-seeker who arrived in Ireland in 2014 and discovered that she was pregnant as the result of rape in her home country. She requested an abortion but was denied permission for one under Irish law. She tried going to Britain and was stopped. She became suicidal, went on hunger strike and doctors intervened.
In the end, Miss Y’s baby was delivered by what Sarah Monaghan described as a forced caesarian after 25 weeks.
“We pride ourselves on our health care and on Ireland being this fantastic place to live, and this woman came here needing help, needing basic access to health care and then couldn’t access it. Then, she was treated in the most inhumane of ways,” Monaghan said.
The story of Miss Y pushed Monaghan to get active. Now, Monaghan is the co-leader of the Abortion Rights Campaign in Ireland. It is high time to repeal the Eighth Amendment, she said.
“This idea that there really is no abortion in Ireland is an absolute fallacy,” Monaghan said. “We have abortion. We just choose to export it elsewhere. And those who are really, truly affected are those who can’t access it, who can’t travel, who don’t have the money, who don’t have the documentation, who may be in domestic violence situations — a wide range of reasons that we tend to forget about and we overlook.”
Supporters of abortion rights take heart in the fact that Catholic Ireland voted to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015 by a wide margin, even though the church opposed it. Monaghan, who is 27, said she is struck by how many Irish women from older generations have told her that they are voting "yes" for repeal.
“They don’t want this for future generations. They don’t want this for their daughters and their granddaughters because they grew up in an Ireland very dominated by the Catholic Church, and shrouded in shame and silence and stigma. These things were not talked about,” Monaghan said.
“They are absolutely ready for a better Irish society.”
The polls might be wrong
Public opinion polling has shown broad support for repealing the Eighth Amendment. But some observers say the polls could be misleading.
Niamh Uí Bhriain is one of those people. Uí Bhriain is a veteran anti-abortion activist with the “Save the 8th” campaign. The group helped organize an anti-abortion rally in Dublin last month, and Uí Bhriain said the event was a massive success.
“It was young and old. It was families, immigrants. It was people who’ve been here forever. It was Catholics. It was people who have no faith,” Uí Bhriain said.
“You could see that in the banners: ‘Atheists for life,’ "Feminists for life," ‘Doctors for life,’ "LGBT for life." It was just an incredible cross-section of Ireland in this huge, huge rally, all to save the Eighth,” she said. “These people were incredibly passionate; you could see that too.”
Wherever they stand on the issue of abortion, Irish voters are going to be hearing a lot about the issue between now and May 25, the day of the vote itself.
If the "yes" votes win and the Eighth Amendment is repealed, the Irish government would still have to pass legislation on how to regulate something that has been banned for so many years.