Fintan O’Toole: Eighth Amendment has failed even conservatives

Effect was arguably to break silence on abortion and make it more acceptable

An anti-abortion march in Dublin in 1982. “If you believe that abortion is a great moral evil, Ireland before the Eighth was just about the best place on Earth.” Photograph: Tom Lawlor

There is not much that the two sides in the abortion referendum campaign will ever agree on. But one perception they share is that the insertion of the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution in 1983 was a great victory for those who are opposed to abortion.

This seems blindingly obvious. After all, the self-described Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) was stunningly effective. Within a mere two years of its foundation, it not only got the two main political parties to accede to its demand for a referendum, but persuaded two-thirds of voters to back its precise wording for the amendment.

It is one of the great triumphs of Irish politics. And yet there is a strong case to be made that it was also one of the great pyrrhic victories. In fact, the amendment can reasonably be seen as a disaster for those who are genuinely opposed to abortion.

Orla O’Connor, Ailbhe Smyth and Grainne Griffin at the launch of the Together For Yes poster campaign. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

To understand this, we have to remember just how deeply and viscerally anti-abortion Ireland was before the 1983 referendum. Public opinion on this matter was literally more Catholic than the pope. In a major survey in 1981, just 4 per cent of Irish women and 4 per cent of Irish men said they approved of a right to abortion where “a married couple do not want to have any more children”. Just 3 per cent of women and 9 per cent of men approved of abortion “where the mother is not married”.

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So if you believe that abortion is a great moral evil, Ireland before the Eighth was just about the best place on Earth

But the really stunning result of that survey in 1981 is that only 43 per cent of women and 49 per cent of men agreed that abortion was acceptable where “the mother’s life is at risk by the pregnancy”. In other words, more than half of Irish people believed that it was better for a mother to die than for her to have an abortion.

Activist Supreme Court

Before the 1983 referendum campaign got under way, moreover, there was not a single TD in favour of abortion rights. There had been one – Jim Kemmy in Limerick – but he had been vilified and successfully targeted and lost his seat in 1982. Indeed, it is worth remembering that, at the time, PLAC did not really bother to suggest that there was any real prospect of the Dáil voting even for very limited access to abortion in Ireland.

It did not make that argument because nobody at all would have believed it. Instead the threat it evoked was that an activist Supreme Court would seize on some extreme test case to introduce abortion by the back door. This was not very credible either, but it was resorted to because not even the most paranoid conservative could see any possibility of liberalisation by legislation.

Caroline Simons (middle) speaks at a Pro Life Campaign event. On Saturday Simmons addressed a pro-life rally in Cork. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

So if you believe that abortion is a great moral evil, Ireland before the Eighth was just about the best place on Earth. An extreme anti-abortion position was the effective societal consensus. The liberal minority might not have liked that position but, with a few brave exceptions, it was cowed into silence. Once Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had fallen into line with PLAC, the passage of the amendment was never in any more doubt than, say, Vladimir Putin’s recent re-election in Russia.

It is one of the great ironies of social change in contemporary Ireland: it was the conservatives who broke through the silence around abortion

So what actually happened after the triumph of the Eighth? A rapid undermining of the conservative position. Take that really basic question of whether abortion is justified to save the life of a pregnant woman. In 1981, just 46 per cent of Irish people agreed that it was. In 1990, seven years after the Eighth was enshrined in the Constitution, 65 per cent agreed. And in 1992, less than a decade after PLAC’s triumph of 1983, 62 per cent and 60 per cent of voters respectively agreed to create constitutional rights to travel outside Ireland to have an abortion and to receive information on abortion services.

Arguments conceded

We take both of those votes for granted but imagine what would have happened a mere decade earlier if a TD had dared to propose such constitutional amendments. He or she would have been hounded out of office as an accomplice to mass murder. And, from a conservative perspective, reasonably so. The 1992 votes conceded all the arguments of moral principle that had seemed so important to conservatives: if you actually believe that abortion is murder, you should not tolerate women being allowed information of how to commit that crime and the freedom to travel to another jurisdiction in order to murder an Irish citizen.

Maybe these changes in Irish opinion would have happened anyway – who knows? But what we can say for sure is that at the very least the Eighth did absolutely nothing to stop them. And it is reasonable to suggest that it actually pushed them forward.

It did so, paradoxically, by creating a public discourse about abortion where there had been, in effect, none. It is one of the great ironies of social change in contemporary Ireland: it was the conservatives who broke through the silence around abortion, who brought a taboo subject into people’s living rooms, who made the unspeakable speakable and therefore increasingly acceptable. Thus the great symbolic victory turned rapidly to dust. What is the point of defending the dust?