The Eighth Amendment was never really about abortion, writes Donal O’Keeffe.
That might seem a very odd thing to say, in the only country in the democratic world to have a constitutional ban on abortion, but there was, in 1983, precisely zero chance that Ireland would legalise abortion. Abortion wasn’t on any serious agenda. There were, however, other agendas then, and they terrified some people.
You have to remember what Ireland was like back then, or – if you weren’t around – you have to imagine.
In 1983, you could only access contraception if you could prove to a doctor’s satisfaction that you were married. In 1983, sex education was non-existent. In 1983, homosexual acts were illegal and would remain illegal for another ten years. In 1983, marital rape was not a crime and would not become a crime until 1990.
In 1983, divorce was impossible, and the first divorce referendum – in 1986 – would be rejected. Almost a decade later, 1995’s second divorce referendum would pass, allegedly only thanks to heavy rain on the west coast. The No side was scaremongering about ‘floodgates’ then, too, and their ‘Hello Divorce, Goodbye Daddy’ posters remain a classic of the genre. The anti-divorce ‘floodgates’ argument has been disproven by history, with Ireland today having Europe’s lowest rate of divorce.
In 1983, children born outside of marriage were considered ‘illegitimate’ or if you want to be less delicate about it, ‘bastards’.
In 1983, a girl or woman pregnant outside of marriage could still be imprisoned in a Magdalene Laundry or Mother and Baby Home. (The last laundry, on Dublin’s Sean MacDermott Street, would not close its doors until 1996. Cork’s Bessboro Mother and Baby Home would not close until the same year.)
The early 1980s in Ireland were a strange time. As the years inched on, we would see the needless death of Ann Lovett, the Kerry Babies Tribunal’s misogynistic crucifixion of Joanne Hayes, and crowds of people standing entranced around neon-lit, moth-haunted statues.
In 1983, nobody in Ireland was talking seriously about legalising abortion. So why did we have a referendum to enshrine in our constitution a ban on abortion?
In 1990, Tom Hesketh wrote – from a pro-amendment perspective – The Second Partitioning of Ireland, the definitive text on the 1983 referendum. Hesketh says the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) was established in 1981 by 13 organisations: the Irish Pro-Life Movement; the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children; the Congress of Catholic Secondary School Parents’ Associations; the Irish Catholic Doctors’ Guild; the Guild of Catholic Nurses; the Guild of Catholic Pharmacists; the Catholic Young Men’s Society; the St Thomas More Society; the National Association of the Ovulation Method; the Council of Social Concern; the Irish Responsible Society; the St Joseph’s Young Priests Society; and the Christian Brothers Schools Parents’ Federation.
Their first meeting was chaired by the head of a 14th organisation: the secretive, men-only Order of the Knights of Columbanus. That meeting was convened by John O’Reilly. Hesketh describes O’Reilly as “perhaps the main instigator of PLAC”. O’Reilly had spoken of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment as far back as the early 1970s, and in 1973 he got his daughters, (nine and ten), to pose as adults and write to the Irish Family Planning Association, enclosing money and asking for condoms and spermicide. O’Reilly then sought, successfully, for criminal charges to be brought against IFPA.
John O’Reilly was obsessed with contraception and with ‘illegitimacy’, predicting: “The campaign for a pro-life amendment would enjoy widespread support now and the success of the campaign would serve to halt the permissive tide in other areas”.
For O’Reilly and his conservative Catholic groups, abortion would serve as a wedge issue, an easy win and a bulwark against calls for social changes far more likely than the legalisation of abortion.
I was a teenager then, and I have odd, snapshot memories of those times, of frantic men and women with rosary beads and graphic posters, and the certainty which informed their every move. Their mania seemed to seize the country, the year after GUBU, and Charlie Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald – locked in perpetual battle to be Taoiseach – signed up to their agenda and tried to out-Catholic each other, ignoring more sober voices warning that the wording of the referendum was seriously flawed. In later life, Garret had the decency to regret the Eighth Amendment, although some who knew him suggest he often regretted at leisure, decisions which benefited him electorally.
It’s always the same people behind every socially-conservative movement in Ireland. It’s always the bishops, and it’s always their proxies, and it’s always the same apocalyptic language. The sky is always falling, and the floodgates are always about to open.
Remember the 2013 Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act, when we got around to legislating, 21 years late, for the 1992 Supreme Court judgement on the X Case? They said the floodgates would open then too, and women would be flocking to their doctors, feigning suicidality to access abortions. And yet, in 2014, 26 legal abortions happened here, three due to a threat to the life of the mother from suicide. In 2015, those figures were replicated perfectly. In 2016, 25 terminations occurred, one of them due to a real and substantial threat of suicide. According to Together for Yes, 25 legal abortions occurred in Ireland in 2017. ‘Floodgates’ indeed.
They’re always on the wrong side of history. Look at their greatest hits of things they opposed:
1950: The Mother and Child Scheme.
1970: Catholics studying in Trinity College.
1973: Married women working in the Civil Service.
1993: Decriminalisation of homosexuality.
2005: The Ferns Report in clerical sex abuse.
2010: Civil partnerships.
2013: Abortion in the case of risk to the mother’s life due to suicide.
2015: Marriage equality.
Contraception, homosexuality, divorce, they lost every battle in their war. But their Eighth Amendment blights still the lives of Irish girls and women, many as yet unborn when Catholic fundamentalists annexed our constitution.
The Eighth Amendment means we pretend we don’t have abortion in Ireland, even as we exile a dozen women a day, even as three women a day access the 21st-century equivalent of backstreet abortions without medical supervision and at the risk of 14 years in prison.
The Eighth Amendment meant Savita Halappanavar wasn’t dying enough to save her life until she was dying too much to save her life.
The Eighth Amendment tells Irish women and girls they are equal citizens only until they have sex. It tells rape survivors their bodies are not their own, all over again, and it tells grieving parents of desperately-wanted, non-viable babies they’re on their own.
The Eighth Amendment is a minefield planted during a war long ago lost.
On May 25, please vote Yes. Please repeal the Eighth.