Anticipating the Second Anniversary of the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment – Michael Dwyer

The repeal of the eighth amendment in 2018 was, to many of us, a source of deep grief. The margin of defeat, however, was no less than shocking. Talking to pro-life activists across the country, I know that many woke on the Sunday after the referendum in what seemed to them to be a different country. Two thirds of the nation had voted to legalise abortion in Ireland. The vote was remarkably consistent, not just in large towns and cities but in most rural areas also.

There are some tempting narratives which we must reject. One is that we did not in fact lose, but that all arms of state and society colluded to steal the vote. We must completely reject this conspiracy theory: it is a perfect excuse to surrender and to disengage totally from secular society, as there would be no point in playing a rigged game. While not many may believe the full-blown conspiracy theory, a large number of pro-life people are finding it hard to keep fighting in what looks like a deeply hostile Ireland. What they need is encouragement, not reasons to retire.

The fact is that we lost. We lost the argument, but more importantly, we lost the culture. Barely a tenth of voters aged 18 to 24 voted to keep the 8th. Clearly they have been failed, and generations before them likewise. Questions must be asked about this failure if we are to have any chance of success in the future.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, we were told loudly and clearly that it was over, that our time had passed, that we were on the wrong side of history. But remember, one third of the electorate voted against repeal. Any political party that managed to get that vote would be the largest in the country. In our system of government, a party which has a handful of TDs elected can find itself in a position of great influence. One third of the electorate is what might be called absolutist on the life issue, and the notion that they are powerless is nonsense. If they choose to compete for power, and seek influence rather than hide under the covers, they can put themselves in a position to drive change. 

While the majority of those who voted against repeal were purists or absolutists Anticipating the Second Anniversary of the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment on the issue of abortion, it is not the case that each and every one of those who voted to repeal were enthusiasts for radical and extreme abortion laws. There is a wide continuum along which voters find themselves, from ‘only in the most restricted of circumstances,’ such as threat to life or rape, all the way along to third trimester elective abortions.

Many pro-life people are deeply uncomfortable with supporting legislation that clearly permits abortion, even if creating certain limits or boundaries. They feel that they are becoming in some sense complicit in the legitimisation of abortion, that their support is a tacit approval for limited abortion. Church leaders need to reassure them on this. Being purist on this is not the way to save any lives, and it is precisely (and tragically) the saving of lives that we must now be concerned with. 

If we look to the United States, we see that it is by garnering the support of those least enthusiastic voters for repeal that we may become able either to stop expansion and liberalisation of the regime, or actually begin the push-back process, by introducing more and clearer limits to the law. 

There are practical steps that individuals and parishes can take, in conjunction with a continuing public advocacy campaign. There are a number of voluntary organisations that are pro-life in ethic and whose charism is to support mothers and fathers when faced with an unplanned or challenging pregnancy. The wonderful work of Every Life Counts is descried by Vicky Wall in this issue of Intercom. Whether by volunteers, expertise, donations, or whatever is needful, every parish can, in some small way, help out these important groups. Also, what they do, who they help and how they can be contacted should be advertised in word and print. Women need to know there is help available when they need it, and not just kind words and good wishes. 

The attack on the basic rights of the most vulnerable has paused only briefly to catch breath and gather energy for the next fight. Already in the last Dail, two private members bills were in preparation to allow the introduction of euthanasia into Ireland. This attack on the old and the sick is coming down the line. It will be cloaked in the language of compassion and be feted as modern, decent, mature and respectful of personal choice, both in the media and by many leaders of civil society. 

In this article, I am not engaging in a rehearsal of the arguments against euthanasia, but we would do well to look to the experience and evolution of this practice in Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands. Also, I would recommend reading the debate held in Westminster, where a very high standard of analysis was on display, and where, mirabile dictu, euthanasia was rejected by a very large majority. We must alert people that this is coming down the line; we must begin this conversation with our people now, before others frame the terms of the discussion. 

On the issues of euthanasia and abortion, there are supports available from pro life groups who will come to parishes, give the life arguments, and help pastors and laity in the most effective means of communication their position and responding to the other side. Make use of these people. Bring groups of parishes together if you don’t have the numbers. Hold public talks from invited guests to inform your parishioners and others from the wider community. Anything which increases knowledge and sharpens wits is worthwhile doing. 

What I am talking about is a kind of reactive, ad hoc, further education. Education is absolutely crucial. For the last couple of years before the referendum, we fought against repeal. Inevitably, our thinking had to be short term and tactical. Now that we have lost, and lost by such a margin, we need to be strategic. Strategic thinking includes enquiring within: how is it that so many Irish men and women can complete all their schooling in Catholic schools, and yet in certain crucial respects seem untouched by the experience? 

A question for all Catholics to reflect on is: What is the purpose and nature of an education that calls itself Catholic? Should an exposition of Catholic bioethics and Catholic anthropology not be part of a curriculum designed to intellectually challenge eighteen-yearolds in the way their maths or history syllabus does? 

Aside from our schools, it seems that there is little or no thought given to the ongoing education of adult Catholics in the intellectual riches and traditions of their faith. I can easily find night classes in conversational Cantonese, computer programming or double-entry bookkeeping, but where should one go to learn about Catholic art, literature or philosophy? Some may say that that is pie in the sky, irrelevant to the ‘ordinary’ people. But right now, Catholic families are sending their children off to university, like shorn lambs into the biting wind, hoping and praying the same child comes home. Yet, if there is to be any hope for the long term, it lies in those same young people. Given the resources and support, both intellectual and spiritual, they can be the influencers of their generation. To effect change, you do not need to be in the majority. Far from it. A few passionate, informed voices in the media, both new and traditional, can be the beginning of change. 

We must, as I wrote before in these pages, take ourselves seriously. Longterm change requires long-term thinking. We are dealing in our country with what must be the greatest human rights issues of this or any generation. This demands of us both humility and honesty. Something has failed, and if it is not our ideas then perhaps it is us, what we have done and what we have failed to do.

Anyone interested in organising workshops on communicating the life position, or looking for speakers on the issue, in invited to contact the author of this piece, at

Michael Dwyer holds a master’s degree in philosophy. His particular interests include political philosophy, the history of ideas and bioethics. He is Director of the Edmund Burke Institute,

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