The Irish establishment wants to sweep away pro-life laws. But the battle will not be so easily won

The battle to save the right to life of the unborn is now well and truly under way in Ireland. It is a struggle that will resonate in Britain. If those of us on the pro-life side win, it will be a big shot in the arm for the pro-life movement everywhere. If we lose, the last major pro-life bastion in Western Europe will have fallen. It is with precisely this aim of overturning the current law that the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros gave $150,000 to Amnesty Ireland last year.

On January 29, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that the government had decided to hold a referendum aimed at deleting the pro-life amendment – known as the Eighth Amendment – from the Irish constitution. This decision was not a surprise as it had been flagged for months, but following a special cabinet meeting the intent to hold a referendum was confirmed. The date is yet to be announced, but May 25 is being talked of. It will be almost impossible to hold it much before then because a lot of preparation is involved in a referendum.

The government doesn’t want to delay holding it much past the end of May because after that many university and college students, thought likely to vote for a repeal of the Eighth in heavy numbers, will be on holiday.

If the vote is held in the autumn, that would not be long after the Pope’s scheduled visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, which takes place at the end of August. Would his visit be a fillip to the pro-life movement? He is popular with ordinary people, Catholic and otherwise. It is hard to believe his trip would not assist the pro-life cause even if he never directly refers to the referendum. This is why the government would much prefer to have the vote over and done with as quickly as possible.

Let us remind ourselves of what is at the heart of this. In 1983, Irish people voted in favour of inserting a pro-life clause into our constitution by a majority of two to one. It is called Article 40.3.3 and reads: “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.”

With this section, the Irish constitution makes the unborn child one of us. It acknowledges that it is a human being like the rest of us and deserves the same protection. Notice that the amendment commits the state to defending the right to life of the unborn only “as far as practicable” and how it refers to the “equal right to life of the mother”.

Contrary to a widespread impression, Article 40.3.3 does not subordinate the life of the mother to that of the unborn child, and it allows the mother to be saved where her life is in danger, even if that means the unborn child will die. The section does not make allowances for other undoubtedly hard cases like rape or babies with illnesses such that they are likely to die soon after birth (so-called fatal foetal abnormalities).

The pro-choice side has been able to highlight these hard cases to make the argument that the Eighth Amendment must go. Several hard cases have arisen since 1983 which the media have done everything to highlight, so as to persuade the public that the Eighth has to be repealed. Some of those cases have involved alleged rape victims, while others have involved women who travelled to England for abortions rather than carry a baby with a life-limiting condition to term.

Our media have not told us of the type of scandals that occur regularly in Britain and would undermine support for abortion (aside from the fact that abortion kills a human being). These include eugenic-abortion, sex-selective abortion, the destruction of the bodies of aborted and miscarried foetuses in hospital incinerators, late-term abortions, babies left to die after botched abortions, the serious health and safety failings of Marie Stopes clinics, and so on. None of this is ever covered in the Irish media. The public are only ever pushed in one direction.

The government has prepared the way for this referendum by first convening a vaingloriously titled “Citizens’ Assembly” during which 99 randomly selected voters listened to speakers who were often presented as being “neutral” but were in fact sometimes pro-choice. The result was inevitable: the members recommended repealing the Eighth. What was not so predictable is that they recommended it be replaced by a law that would, in certain respects, be more liberal than the British one.

The Assembly was followed up by hearings of a specially convened Dáil committee which was similarly flawed and came up with broadly similar recommendations. It was these recommendations that the cabinet meeting of January 29 considered.

The law proposed to replace the Eighth amendment would permit abortion on request up to 12 weeks and after that on the same grounds as in Britain, which is to say on “mental and physical health” grounds.

This is being presented as a “moderate” proposal when it is obviously nothing of the sort, given that it is even more permissive than the British law. Not even Britain allows abortion for any reason in the first trimester, which is when more than nine in 10 abortions take place. And as attentive British people know, the “mental health” ground is used to justify nearly all of Britain’s almost 200,000 abortions annually.

In any event, if the Eighth Amendment goes, the law can subsequently become anything, and the initial piece of legislation would be just the starting point. It would only become more liberal from there, and the proposed starting point is already bad.

The pro-life movement’s task is to persuade the public exactly what is at stake. A clear majority of Irish people believe the Eighth Amendment should be replaced by something less restrictive than at present because of the aforementioned hard cases. But if it becomes clear to voters that once the Eighth goes any replacement law will go far beyond the hard cases, then they might be persuaded to vote No, thereby keeping the amendment.

Polls are showing that around 50 to 55 per cent of voters support the current government proposal, versus about 30 per cent who want to keep the Eighth intact, with the rest undecided.

This may sound like good news for the government, but it isn’t, because in referendum campaigns the side opposed to change almost always closes the gap. Even in the same-sex marriage referendum of 2015, the gap started at 50 points and in the end was 24 points. This time it is starting at around 20 to 25 points.

This gives the pro-life side a fighting chance of winning because, when the campaign hots up, more and more people will become aware that there is another point of view here, and what the government wants to do is completely withdraw constitutional protection from the unborn and leave that category of human being at the mercy of future legislators. Voters are likely to baulk at this in the end, which would be a resounding win for the pro-life movement everywhere.

David Quinn is a columnist with the Sunday Times and the Irish Catholic. He is the founder and director of The Iona Institute ( His latest book is How we killed God (and other tales of modern Ireland), published by Currach Press

This article first appeared in the February 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here