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Ireland’s abortion referendum: Why did voters choose to remove life protections?

Referendum vote count

James Forde | AFP

Counting of the votes for abortion referendum in Dublin.

John Burger - published on 06/05/18

Observers say confluence of long-term problems led two-thirds of voters to reject Eighth Amendment.

Ireland’s recent referendum to abolish a constitutional amendment protecting unborn children came about because of a “perfect storm” of influences, said a leader of the pro-life movement in the country.

Many factors led up to the May 25 vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, said Lisa O’Hare, spokeswoman for Human Life International Ireland. They include the progressive secularization of a populace that was once solidly Catholic, helped along by the Church’s own failure to properly teach and form its young members; a hierarchy that has been silenced by the media and popular culture because of recent scandals and weakened by internal dissent, and the continuing impact of the sexual revolution and a culture of relativism.

“All these factors have fueled directly into Ireland,” O’Hare in an interview.

About two-thirds of those voting in the referendum opted to replace the Eighth Amendment with wording that provides for the regulation of abortion. Legislation allowing abortion is expected to be introduced in parliament before the summer break, Health Minister Simon Harris said.

Like the 2015 referendum to allow couples of the same sex to marry in Ireland, the vote to repeal the Eighth is thought to be the first time in history that a nation’s people themselves voted to legalize abortion.

In the view of Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, professor emeritus of Moral Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, the most profound reason for this “extraordinary change” is that Catholicism has become primarily a ritualized cultural phenomenon,” Fr. Twomey said in an interview. “Catholics of conviction are limited.”

Fr. Twomey explained that celebrations like baptism, holy communion, confirmation, weddings, and funerals, “have become purely rituals. In most cases, they’re just excuses for parties.”

“People have been born into Catholicism, and they maybe follow the Church for the various rites of passage, but it certainly hasn’t been an alive Catholic community for some time,” said O’Hare. The referendum has been a “very painful realization of the secularism of the nation that we are suffering.”

Human Life International was hoping there was enough of a Catholic spirit left in Ireland to carry the No vote. Apparently there wasn’t, but there was enough of a specter of one characteristic of the faith to actually propel the repeal vote, said Fr. Twomey, who was a doctoral student of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s at Regensburg.

“The Yes campaign played on one of the strengths of traditional Irish Catholicism as a cultural phenomenon, rooted in the faith, i.e., compassion for the suffering of others,” Fr. Twomey said. That compassion was being shown for the “unfortunate women in crisis pregnancies, who because of the situation here, the law, had to go to England to have their ‘terminations.'” The media “kept on presenting these hard sympathetic cases,” especially that of Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish hospital after being denied an abortion there. Her case has been used to support the legalization of abortion, but in fact various medical reviews came to the conclusion that she died because of the mismanagement of severe sepsis. “Even Mass-goers were reported saying this, that they would be voting Yes, quite consciously, because of the plight of women. Reasoned argumentation and facts made little impact when passions were aroused by the Yes side.”

Michael J. New, associate professor of economics at Ave Maria University and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, wrote in National Review that “unique scenarios involving rape, fetal abnormalities, and health risks to women were salient in the minds of many Irish voters who voted in favor of repeal.”

“When asked what influenced their vote,” New wrote, commenting on an exit poll conducted by RTÉ, the Irish national television and radio broadcaster, “77 percent cited stories of people they knew or peoples’ personal stories as covered in the media—which tended to emphasize unique scenarios involving health risks and fetal deformities. Furthermore, when asked for specific factors that influenced their vote, three of the top four factors were risk to health or life of the woman, pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, and fatal fetal abnormalities.”

“What we’re hearing is that a lot of people voted on those difficult cases, and that they weren’t for abortion on demand as such, but they felt that the Eighth amendment was somehow hindering the medical care of pregnant women,” O’Hare said. “And the other hard cases of life-limiting conditions and rape and incest were areas that people felt needed to be addressed. … We’ve lost our full capacity for the redemptive value of suffering in this country, like the rest of the Western world, we seem to have bought into this notion that we can somehow navigate this world without suffering, and anything that needs to be done to eliminate suffering needs to be done.

“That comes back to teaching the full extent of authentic Catholicism,” she continued. “What people see of Catholicism in Ireland is a very superstitious Catholicism. … It’s much more than a superstitious devotion to statues or saints. It’s a real and loving relationship with Jesus Christ and how he will help us negotiate all the trials and tribulations of the world we find ourselves in.”

Exit polls also showed that close to 90 percent of voters aged 18-24 voted for repeal.

“This is another indication of the failure of the Catholic Church in Ireland at the level of basic religious education, of forming young men and women of conviction,” Fr. Twomey commented. “There has been practically no serious religious education in Ireland for the last 40 years, if not more. Ireland, it should be remembered, though proud of its independence and distinctive culture, is still part of the Anglo-Saxon world, and what happens in America and England is just as relevant as what’s happening in Ireland. The whole move towards freedom of choice, women’s liberation—feminism played a very big role in this—that’s all very strong here in Ireland as well. And it’s what attracts young people. Youth is easily manipulated by propaganda.”

Fr. Twomey said he has “anecdotal evidence” that young voters “often persuaded their parents” to vote for repeal: “parents who were undecided, who were confused—confusion was quite extensive—and so the young people persuaded their parents to go along with them. Parents in Ireland have become insecure with regard to their younger children. They don’t want to lose them, they don’t want to upset them, and they’re very proud of their achievements, intellectually, very often going way beyond what the parents themselves ever could achieve, because of their own earlier circumstances.”

The priest agreed that the Church effectively had no voice in the campaign because of a recent history of scandals, some of which were thoroughly rehashed in the media in the lead-up to the vote.

“I think that the bishops did come out as much as they could, with very carefully worded pastorals, some very powerful pastorals,” he said. “But in the end all the bishops tended to say was, ‘For these reasons I’m voting No.’ Then people would say ‘Oh yeah, you may vote No, that’s your choice; we’re going to vote Yes.’ So they didn’t have that edge that would be needed. But it would have been counterproductive if they had come out with a big statement.”

Many of the Church scandals—such as those involving the mother and baby homes and the Magdalene laundries—Fr. Twomey said, are “historically conditioned, but there was no attempt at all at any balanced account. When they’re mentioned, they evoke the reaction: ‘Oh, the Church is to blame for all the horrors of the past.’ And the mantra was repeated: ‘We dealt with women badly in the past, in the dark past of Catholic Ireland. Now’s the time for a more liberated freedom of choice, where women can do what they will, without the interference of the Church.'”

Until legislation is in place, however, Irish audiences are likely to keeping hearing about the “dark past.”

“At this very moment, there’s a new scandal being pushed in by the media,” Fr. Twomey said. “It concerns the story of children born out of wedlock, whose birth certificates when adopted contained not the actual names of the child’s biological parents but of the parents who had adopted them. This historically conditioned if most regretful practice has been well known to the authorities for the past 50 years. Only now is it being brought to the wider public’s attention, which is quite interesting.

“The reason is, in all likelihood,” he continued, “to counter any attempt either by Church leaders or, especially, by those legislators who voted No to the referendum, to object to the proposed radical abortion legislation, which will soon be introduced in parliament, or to attempt to restrict its scope.”

O’Hare added that there will be debate about how much, if any, conscience protection will be afforded to doctors, and whether pro-life protestors will be allowed to pray in front of facilities where abortions will be performed.

Health minister Simon Harris said just a few days after the vote that doctors who object to abortion would have to refer patients elsewhere, according to the Irish newspaper the Journal.

Because of the scandals, the understandable hurt suffered by some people has morphed into “vicious rejection” of the Church, O’Hare said. “People seem to have a memory of the Church over the last 20 years, as opposed to our history of hundreds of years of what the Church has done in Ireland, how it has built this country, how it has built western civilization and formed much of the globe,” she said.

But neither she nor Fr. Twomey are giving up.

“Unless you get a diagnosis like that you can’t treat it, so many of us in the Catholic community are looking on this as a gift from God to see exactly where we stand and be able to address it fully, rather than if we had had a No vote, we possibly could have papered over the cracks and thought maybe the situation isn’t as bad as we feared,” O’Hare said.

“What I hope will happen is that the faithful in general, lay and clerical, might begin to reflect on the implications of this seismic shift in values as it begins to seep into public consciousness,” said Fr. Twomey, author of The End of Irish Catholicism?. “It could be the beginning of a revival of a genuine Catholicism in Ireland from the grassroots up.“

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