The Abortion Referendum

Our first day in Ireland was May 24, which was the same day that the Republic held a referendum on whether or not to repeal the eighth amendment to the constitution, which dates from 1983 and which prohibits the practice of abortion except in very extreme circumstances. As you may be aware, the Irish voted overwhelmingly to repeal the eighth amendment, 66.4% to 33.6%. What I did not know is that the eighth amendment was also enacted after a referendum back in 1983, which the Irish people voted for by a similar margin: 66.9% to 33.1%. So the result was seen as symbolic of a sea change in attitudes over the course of 35 years, part of the secularization of society and of the declining power of the Church, something observed across the western world over the course of the twentieth century and which has only belatedly come to Ireland.

I think it’s great that Ireland decides these things by referendum. It’s much better than leaving it up to five of nine Supreme Court justices and whatever creative and tendentious interpretation of the law that they come up with on a given day.

As you can probably imagine, we saw a lot of advertising on the topic throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, the “No” side had most of the signs in rural County Kerry, while the “Yes” side had most of the signs in urban Dublin. But it was unreflective of the actual results: the only constituency that “No” actually won was County Donegal, and there only by a slim margin.

I took this photo from the coach as we were heading into Dublin. I wanted to get signs from both sides in the same frame. As chance would have it, this is about as strident as it got (“killing babies” vs. “my-body-my-choice”).

Otherwise, I was surprised at how subdued most of the propaganda was, as reflected by the above two signs. The “No” sign in the bottom photograph was sponsored by something calling itself “Love Both,” i.e. both mother and child, the two “O”s forming an “8” for the amendment in question. This, I suppose, was in response to the “Yes” side’s emphasis on “compassion.” (I regret to say that I did not get a photo of a sign communicating this message.)

But there was certainly some mockery of the other side: note the “Love Boat” sticker over the number of days at which the fetus’s heart starts beating. This is in reference to the “boat” that Irishwomen must take to Britain or the continent in order to procure abortions there, and which the “Yes” side cast as an undue hardship. (They can’t go to Northern Ireland – as I discovered, abortion is banned there as well. Apparently this is a rare thing that both communities can agree on.)

The Catholic Church, of course, was flat-out for the “No” side. I picked up some pamphlets in the churches I visited.

I thought this one laid it on a little thick…

But what I found most interesting is the appeal to Irish nationalism (not necessarily Catholicism, although of course there is going to be some overlap).

As far as I can tell the first three people at the top of this sign are the Irish revolutionary leaders Sean Mac Diarmada, Patrick Pearse, and Eamonn Ceannt. (I cannot discern who the fourth one is.)

Note how this drink coaster makes a connection between the rebellion of 1916 (see the declaration of the Irish Republic in the background) and the “rebellion” against the movement to liberalize abortion laws in 2018.

And, as is traditional with Irish nationalism, Britain is figured as the prime source of evil. I saw another sign citing the British abortion rate, and exclaiming “Don’t Bring This To Ireland!”

But neither religion nor nationalism worked this time. (“Cúram le Chéile, Vótáil Tá” = “Care Together, Vote Yes.”)