Why Ireland became the only country in the democratic world to have a constitutional ban on abortion

Opinion: Sectarian, paranoid, apocalyptic ideology gave us the eighth amendment

Counting  votes for the Dublin area in the abortion referendum in 2002. Photograph: Frank Miller

Counting votes for the Dublin area in the abortion referendum in 2002. Photograph: Frank Miller

Tue, Aug 26, 2014, 12:01

The most successful single issue movement in the history of the State, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), was established in January 1981 by 13 organisations: 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 Irish Pro-Life Movement; the National Association of the Ovulation Method (“natural” contraception endorsed by the Catholic church); the Council of Social Concern (COSC); the Irish Responsible Society; the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children; the St Joseph’s Young Priests Society (young Catholic priests, that is); and the Christian Brothers Schools Parents’ Federation. The initial meeting was chaired by the head of a 14th organisation that was immensely influential on the campaign behind the scenes, the secretive, all-male brotherhood the Order of the Knights of Columbanus.

These are the bodies that made Ireland unique in the democratic world in having a ban on abortion in its constitution. In spite of a great deal of revisionism, their sectarian character is obvious: 10 of these bodies were explicitly and exclusively Catholic. The other four were almost entirely made up of conservative Catholic activists. (By contrast, all Irish Protestant churches opposed the amendment.) For all of these groups, abortion was just one front in a wider religious war.


The meeting that established PLAC was called by John O’Reilly, described in Tom Hesketh’s fine history of the amendment (written from a pro-amendment point of view), The Second Partitioning of Ireland, as “perhaps the main instigator of PLAC”. He was vice-chairman of COSC and secretary and co-founder of the Irish Responsible Society.

He seems to have been the person who first conceived the idea of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, as far back as 1974. O’Reilly generally kept a low profile but he broke the surface in an extraordinary court case.

In 1973, he got his daughters, aged 10 and nine, to write to the Irish Family Planning Association in Dublin, posing as adults, enclosing money and asking for condoms and spermicide. He then succeeded in having criminal charges brought against the IFPA.

John O’Reilly explicitly regarded a successful anti-abortion amendment as a prelude to action against contraception and “illegitimacy”: “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 “pro-life” was the opposite of “anti-life”, a term which incorporated the availability of contraception and (weirdly) the rising number of babies born out of wedlock.

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