The taxi driver who drove me to Dublin’s Referendum Count Centre on Saturday was visibly upset as he talked about the loss of the Eighth Amendment, the last remaining protection for the unborn in the Irish Constitution. Like me, he already knew that a majority of voters had decided to remove the Eighth from the Constitution, opening the door to abortion on demand. He wasn’t a campaigner, or a “zealot”, just a voter. He told me he voted no because he was afraid repeal of the Eighth would lead to the ending of lives. Having lived abroad, he’d seen what abortion does to a society and is worried about what will happen here.
It’s a worry that will be shared by many after the result and, I would suggest, the most pressing need of Ireland’s political leaders is to quell those fears and bring some unity to a country where one third of all those who voted did so with the hope that the Eighth Amendment would remain in the Constitution.
For those of us most closely involved in the campaign, it’s important to look back before we can look forward effectively. For me, there are a few standout aspects of the last few months that merit a mention. The constant claim from repealers that Ireland, without abortion, was a dangerous place for women was shown to be false as recently as December 2017 when the Maternal Death Enquiry report was released, showing Ireland to be safer than countries like the UK and US where abortion is freely available. That claim wasn’t challenged sufficiently by the mainstream media and, in the words of senior consultant obstetrician Dr. Mary Holohan, created “unnecessary fears” for many voters that no doubt weighed on their minds in the polling booths. The exit poll carried out by the national broadcaster showing a slim majority of 52% in favour of abortion at 12 weeks would also suggest that the tragic cases of rape, incest and life-limiting conditions pushed many voters towards supporting repeal.
It’s clear from the same exit poll that a large proportion of voters had made up their mind even before the campaign proper began. There’s some comfort in that for ‘No’ campaigners; despite the enormous efforts made throughout the country, we were fighting something much bigger than the campaign at hand. The seeds for this result were sown over a period of years as the culture shifted towards one where ‘choice’ took priority over the right to life of unborn babies. That’s not a reason for pro-life supporters to despair; far from it. In a world where abortion was considered the norm, Ireland held out longer than most.
So now to that vital next step. How do we move forward as a country? When commenting on the result last week, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar reassured ‘No’ voters that the country is “still the same country today”. But of course it’s not. The Eighth Amendment is gone. Mr. Varadkar now presides over a country where an entire group of human beings – unborn babies – have no constitutional protection. That’s a bigger change than any of us have seen before.
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But we can take note of his other comments in the same speech, where he described an Ireland that is “tolerant, open and respectful”. We’ll also remember his commitments made during the campaign, when he added his voice to that of the Minister for Health, Simon Harris. They asked voters to say yes to a proposal that would be restrictive, that would not allow late-term abortions or abortions on the grounds of disability. Well, the people believed them and voted accordingly. Now it’s time for Leo Varadkar to show that he can follow through on his own words. And if we’re really serious about creating a tolerant society, then there must be room for medical professionals to opt out of performing or referring for abortions.
This week we’ve seen talk of abortion clinics, exclusion zones, and abortions being paid for from public funds. None of these received any meaningful discussion before the vote which means they must be given serious consideration now before any law is passed.
For so long the Eighth Amendment has been blamed for every failing in Irish society. Calls for its removal found their way into almost every scandal. Now that it’s gone, we have to navigate a new future, one where we must be brave enough to honestly examine whether abortion is good for our country.
As for the pro-life movement, we will recover from this loss. There’s something very inspiring about the people who have become involved in the course of this campaign and who even now are eager to regroup and move forward. We understand more than most that pro-life laws are just one thing that keeps the number of abortions low. The supports and assistance that women and families facing unplanned or difficult pregnancies receive can make all the difference and there is no doubt that we have a huge way to go in that regard. For those who believe that every human being deserves a chance at life, the struggle hasn’t ended. It’s simply changed.