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
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.
AmendmentThe 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.
But COSC’s agenda was wide: its first attack was on the formation of a multidenominational primary school in Dalkey in 1976. Its member organisations, such as the League of Decency, cut their teeth in campaigns against “dirty” TV shows, family planning clinics and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.
The Irish Responsible Society, of which five key PLAC leaders were members, was the Irish branch of the group led by the English right-wing Catholic activist Valerie Riches (now a papal dame). For Riches, the degeneration of society through sexual permissiveness was a conspiracy driven by International Planned Parenthood.
She and her Irish followers were especially obsessed with the dangers of sex education, especially that which “emphasises that homosexual activity is normal and natural”.
The morning-after pill was also, in their eyes, a special horror because it changed “the definition of the moment when human life starts from fertilisation to implantation”. All of this conjured an apocalyptic vision: “the issue at stake concerns the very fabric of society, the very future of the human race.”
HeadquartersRiches warned a meeting at the Knights of Columbanus headquarters in Dublin in 1980 of an ascending scale of moral depravity from contraception to abortion to homosexuality.
The first action of her Irish followers was to campaign against a small State grant to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Its next campaign was against the removal of the stigma of illegitimacy from children born out of wedlock.
This is the ideology – sectarian, paranoid, apocalyptic – that gave us the eighth amendment. It was utterly dismissive of any qualifications to its absolutist views and saw all “sob stories” as liberal conspiracies.
Bernadette Bonar, a leading PLAC and Responsible Society figure, warned of pro-abortion conspirators turning up at a TD’s clinics: “seemingly respectable little women giving him sob stories about 12-year-olds being raped.”
Loretto Browne, also a prominent PLAC and Responsible Society leader, told me in 1982 that rape very seldom results in pregnancy because “men that go in for rape are usually not fertile, they tend to be impotent”.
She pointed, moreover, to the rising numbers of alleged homosexuals in Ireland as further evidence of conspiracy: “By natural law we couldn’t have that many misfits ... there couldn’t be that many physically deformed people in society.”
These were the people who created the Irish abortion regime. Most of them are long gone from the public stage – COSC and the Irish Responsible Society no longer exist. Their world view is marginal. But their legacy abides for women not born when it was in its pomp.