Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 68(3) August 2018
Eighth Amendment Referendum in Ireland
Dr Dermot Kearney. President of the CMA
On May 25th 2018 the people of the Republic of Ireland voted by referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution. The Amendment had been previously approved by popular vote in 1983 and essentially recognised that the unborn child had a right to life equal to the life of its mother. The wording of the Eight Amendment, while not perfect, had been carefully chosen to keep Ireland free from abortion on demand.
Ireland has become the first country in the world to remove the right to life of a specific group of persons.
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
In voting to repeal this Amendment, Ireland has become the first country in the world to remove the right to life of a specific group of persons. The referendum result was welcomed by the current Irish government who had led the campaign supporting repeal. The significance of the result was not lost on commentators and received worldwide press coverage for several weeks afterwards. Three weeks before the referendum took place, the highly-respected Irish journalist and author, John Waters, had warned that “Friday, May 25th may emerge as the bloodiest day in all of our history”. Pro-abortion groups throughout the world already view the result as one of great historical importance. For many years, Ireland, despite the constitutional protection for the unborn as a result of the Eighth Amendment, has been considered to be one of the safest countries in the world for maternal care. This exemplary safety record has been a thorn in the side of the pro-abortion lobby as it directly contradicts and exposes as lies the claims that women die from not having access to abortion.
While the result itself was not a major surprise the margin of victory (66.4 % versus 33.4%) for those advocating repeal was shocking. The final result, announced on the following afternoon at Dublin Castle, was greeted with jubilation in a party atmosphere. The Irish people thereby wildly celebrated a forthcoming right to kill innocent unborn babies in their own land.
On a personal level, the result brings me great sadness. It effectively means that two-thirds of the people that I grew up with, went to school with, made my First Holy Communion with and played football with voted in favour of a change to Irish law to allow the deliberate destruction of the unborn.
While definitive details have yet to emerge, it seems likely that the new proposed legislation will allow for abortion to be carried out for any and no reason up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and possibly right up to birth for other specified reasons such as alleged “fatal foetal abnormality”.
While assurances were made before the referendum that abortion provision would not include abortion for disabilities and chromosomal abnormalities the government now seem to be backtracking on this assurance. The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, has recently refused to confirm that the possibility of allowing abortion in cases of foetal disability or chromosomal abnormalities will not be permissible under the new legislation.
There is no doubt that Ireland has changed, “changed utterly” over the last 35 years since the initial Eighth Amendment referendum. It is no longer a Catholic country and has not been for many years. The Church lost much of its credibility and moral authority in the eyes of many, particularly when details of clerical sex abuse of minors and subsequent cover-ups at hierarchical level emerged. Yet there were many signs that attitudes to religion and religious observance were in serious decline for several years before those reports emerged. For many, the sex abuse scandals were exactly the excuse required to justify abandonment of religion and belief even though the vast majority of Catholic priests in Ireland were entirely innocent of any misdemeanour and were more horrified than the general population at the crimes committed by a small minority of their fellow priests and brothers.
With increasing wealth and economic prosperity, the people of Ireland had found a new god – one that had largely eluded them in the past but one they had craved for from observing lifestyles from other countries. It may be pure coincidence but the major decline in religious practice coincided with the emergence of the Celtic Tiger and Ireland’s increasing prosperity in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Moral decline accompanied increasing material prosperity. Th at hardly comes as a surprise. Did Someone not once say that it was harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven “than for a camel to pass though the eye of a needle”. Maybe He had Ireland in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in mind when He spoke those words.
The campaign to defend the Eighth Amendment was actually well-organised and appeared to be achieving considerable success as successive polls carried out in the months leading up to the day of the referendum suggested that the gap between the two sides was closing. There was also widespread acceptance that the prolife side, defending the Eighth Amendment, performed very well in the live television debates. There was obvious panic among the “Yes” campaigners that their referendum might be lost and there were even claims that the RTE presenter during one of the live debates was biased towards the “No” campaign. All of the mainstream media, particularly RTE, had been staunchly pro-abortion throughout the referendum campaigns and for many years beforehand.
The first real indication that the pro-abortion “Yes” side would be victorious came with the exit poll results on the day of the referendum, immediately after the voting stations were closed. Despite the hope generated by previous polls, it now became clear that the fight to save the Eighth Amendment was lost. The exit poll predictions proved frighteningly accurate and the worst fears of the prolife side were confirmed on the next day.
In the exit polls, a large sample of the electorate was asked a number of questions on leaving the polling booths. The responses reveal some telling facts. Perhaps the most interesting fact to emerge was in response to the question “At what stage did you decide to vote as you did?” The vast majority (more than 75%) said they “always knew”, indicating that the referendum had been lost many years before it ever took place. This confirms that there was nothing more that the prolife side could have done to influence hearts and minds. The Irish electorate were not prepared to listen to reasoned debate or convincing arguments. Their minds had already been made up. For some, rejecting the Eighth Amendment equated to rejection of Catholicism and everything that the Catholic Church might stand for. The Church had wisely decided to keep a relatively low profile during the debate. Ironically, one of the strongest and most courageous voices advocating a prolife stance and defence of the Eighth Amendment came from the traditionally anti-Catholic Orange Order. It may be that important life issues will bring true Christians of all denominations together again.
It was interesting to note that 7% of respondents stated that the Savita Halappanavar case strongly influenced their decision to vote for repeal of the Eighth Amendment. We know, however, that Savita’s tragic death had nothing whatsoever to do with the Eighth Amendment and the constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland except where the mother’s life was deemed to be at risk. Independent enquiries concluded that her death occurred by “medical misadventure” and was related to inappropriate management of septicaemia. The consultant obstetrician in charge of her care at University Hospital Galway, Dr Katherine Astbury, stated that she would not have hesitated to carry out a “termination” if she had believed that there was a threat to Savita’s life from septic abortion. The Eighth Amendment protection for the unborn did not impact upon decisions made at the time in Savita’s management.
Despite the facts of the case, Savita was shamefully used by the pro-abortion “Yes” campaign to convince the Irish people of the need to introduce abortion on demand in Ireland. Even the repeated statements of several well-respected Obstetricians including John Monaghan, Eamon McGuinness and Trevor Hayes, reiterating that the Eighth Amendment did not contribute to her death, fell on deaf ears. Dr McGuinness had been particularly forthright when he stated publicly “I want to be very clear about what I say next: The 8th amendment has never impacted my ability to provide the best healthcare that women and their babies expect and deserve. To my knowledge, no woman in Ireland has lost her life because the 8th Amendment prevented best care, and my colleagues have testified to that in several Oireachtas Committees, in both 2013 and in 2000.”
A shrine dedicated to the memory of Savita Halappanavar has been created around a mural with her image in Portobello, Dublin. For many, it will be considered a memorial to a martyr who gave her life so that the pro-abortion cause could be advanced in Ireland. For others, it will be a lasting reminder of the day that the Irish people were misled into renouncing the belief that all human lives are of equal value.
Since the referendum, attention has now switched to the actual terms of the proposed legislation to allow abortion in the Republic of Ireland. Definitive legislation is expected to be introduced later this year. Of particular concern to doctors and other healthcare professionals in Ireland is the role that they may be expected to play in the planned abortion provision programme. There is likely to be some limited conscience protection clause for doctors whereby they will be allowed to hold a personal conscientious objection to performing abortion or prescribing abortion pills. It has been suggested, however, that this protection will not be absolute and that they will be required to make “effective referrals” to practitioners who will be prepared to participate in abortion provision if they are not prepared to participate themselves. This ruling would be unacceptable for practising Catholics and for many other conscientious doctors who will not wish to be implicated in abortion provision in any way.
It has also been recently stated by the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, that hospitals receiving state funding will not be allowed to opt out of abortion service provision regardless of any Catholic or other ethos. He has specifically named the Mater Misericordiae, St Vincent’s and Holles Street National Maternity Hospitals in Dublin as prime examples of institutions that will be required to comply with any new legislation. Such directives will have important implications for individual Catholics and for Catholic institutions involved in the healthcare services. At this stage, no specific mention has been made in relation to the roles that nurses and pharmacists will be expected to play but it must be presumed that Catholics in these professions will not receive any mercy or understanding from the government. The Catholic Medical Association (UK) is ready and willing to provide any support required to help Irish healthcare professionals and students of healthcare professions deal with any problems they might face in relation to whatever abortion provision legislation is introduced.
Greatest concern should be extended, however, to those who campaigned for and who voted for repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Many have been misled and may not understand the gravity of what the “Yes” vote truly means. All those who voted to introduce abortion into Ireland desperately need our love and prayers. There is no doubt that many lives will be destroyed as a result of this “tragedy of historic proportion”. I fear that many souls may also be lost. It was very encouraging, in the aftermath of the referendum result, to hear Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin diocese in the West of Ireland and other clerics state that Catholics who voted for repeal should seriously consider confessing this grave sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and assuring that all penitents will be received with compassion. Hopefully many will see this invitation as a wake-up call and accept it in a spirit of true repentance.