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Fintan O’Toole: America’s right should be careful what it wishes for

Pro-Life Amendment Campaign of 1983 in Ireland was harbinger of disaster for religious conservatives

For the United States in 2022, think Ireland in 1983. For religious reactionaries, the passage of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution and the overturning of Roe v Wade by the US Supreme Court are twin landmarks of triumph in the abortion wars.

But for any intelligent American conservative, this parallel should be deeply discouraging. For what the Irish experience shows most definitively is that all such victories over the rights of women to possess their own bodies will be pyrrhic.

The stunning success of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign almost 40 years ago in Ireland was the harbinger, not of future dominance, but of a slowly unfolding disaster for religious conservatives. The same will be true of last week’s equally spectacular coup by the Trumpian supreme court. In both cases, a quietly insistent admonition murmurs beneath the euphoria of the right: be careful what you wish for.

It’s easy to see why the religious right became fixated on abortion as a defining issue. Its aim is to divide society – the righteous against the ungodly, the pure against the permissive, the saved against the damned.

And abortion is genuinely divisive. It invites extremism. Most people may find it absurd and insulting to place a woman on exactly the same moral and legal plane as a zygote.

But if you do believe that a fertilised ovum is a fully human person, then killing it is a hideous crime. Stopping legalised mass murder becomes an absolute duty.

As a way to galvanise and animate your own tribe, and simultaneously to characterise liberals as vile slaughterers of the innocent, this crusade is perfect. Yet the worst thing that can happen to the cause is the kind of total victory US conservatives are now celebrating.

Collective identity

There are two big reasons for this. One is what we might call the Brexit paradox: nothing is more fateful to a cause fuelled by grievance than the removal of that grievance.

If your collective identity is shaped over many decades by the idea that you are the victim of a terrible wrong, what happens to that identity when you can’t claim to be a victim any more?

Second, it is much easier to be “pro-life” than to deal with life itself. You can put into or take out of your constitution whatever you like, but women’s lives will go on. And those lives will always include pregnancies that women need to terminate.

Banning abortion is no more effective in stopping this than prohibition was in ending the use of alcohol. Nowhere has this ever been clearer than in Ireland after 1983.

The Eighth Amendment was the ultimate belt-and-braces job. It outlawed a procedure that was already banned, on pain, for both women and their doctors, of life imprisonment. It was a great case of locking the stable door long before the horse had even thought of bolting.

But what happened in reality? The number of abortions performed on Irish women rose steadily and steeply.

The anti-abortion fanatics succeeded in making life hell for vulnerable girls and women and depriving many of them of care, dignity and equal citizenship. Their righteous cause even managed to kill some women.

Hollow victory

But that was all they actually achieved. In their stated aim of stopping or even reducing Irish abortions, they failed utterly and miserably. The victory of their comrades in the US will be equally hollow.

In truth, though, many of these activists are not primarily concerned with actual women and real terminations. They see victory on abortion as the staging post from which to launch the great sexual and reproductive counter-revolution. As Clarence Thomas revealed in his ruling as part of last week’s majority verdict in the US, striking down Roe v Wade is the overture to assaults on the right to contraception and the rolling back of LGBT+ equality.

Yet here, too, the Irish case is bad news for the right-wingers. Their great moment in 1983 was meant to stop the liberalisation of Irish society, to make sure that divorce, contraception and gay sex would also stay (as they were then) illegal. It was meant to copperfasten the fusion of church and state in Ireland and to ensure that the law here would remain rooted in Catholic dogma.

Over time, though, it had the opposite effect. The Eighth Amendment didn’t stabilise anything – it was itself wildly unstable, leading to multiple court cases, grotesque scandals like the X case and the death of Savita Halappanavar, and no fewer than five further referendums.

All of this actually discredited the politics of religious conservatism. It forced Irish people, gradually but decisively, to disentangle themselves and the State from the absurdities and cruelties of dogmatic fanaticism.

This happened in a country that was then much favourable territory for the Christian right than the US is now. If it happened in Holy Catholic Ireland, it will surely happen in a far more complex and divided US.

The zealots are having their moment in the American sun. But that same sun also sheds a merciless light on their extremism, their cruelty, their insistence on coercing the majority into obedience to the dogmas of a minority. Conservatism, as Ireland showed, slowly melts in that pitiless heat.