Liam Neeson recently recorded a voiceover for an Amnesty International video calling for abortion to be legalised in Ireland. As the camera pans over the ruins of a Catholic church, Neeson talks about a “ghost of the last century” that still “haunts this land”, bringing “suffering and even death to the women it touches.” That ghost is the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s constitution, in which the state recognises the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.
Neeson is one of Ireland’s great actors, but this isn’t his finest piece. As a piece of pro-choice advocacy, the video fails. (It’s been viewed over 90,000 times on Youtube, but has a thumbs-down to thumbs-up ratio of more than 3 to 1 – my impression is that most pro-choice people in Ireland are vaguely embarrassed by it). But its existence makes perfect sense. Those who want the Eighth Amendment repealed are committed to the story it tells: that the Eighth is a part of old, bad, Catholic Ireland, a place where women’s health is put at risk in the name of dogma, and we’ll only be a truly modern, progressive country when we get rid of it.
That story is so important to tell because the truth could hardly be more different. The reason campaigners for repeal are trying to make the debate about “ghosts of the last century” is that Ireland proves that it’s more than possible to be a modern, egalitarian democracy with world-leading maternal healthcare, all without abortion. It’s the embodied contradiction to the horror stories told by pro-choice campaigners around the world about what a country with pro-life laws would actually be like.
Ireland passed the Eighth Amendment in 1983, which ensured that abortion remained effectively illegal in Ireland until 2013. After a 1992 Supreme Court ruling interpreting the Eighth’s “due regard” clause to allow abortion when a woman is judged to be at risk of suicide, the Irish Medical Council cited the lack of medical evidence that abortion ever reduced suicide risk, and continued to define direct abortion in all cases as medical malpractice while making it clear that withholding necessary medical treatment from a pregnant woman would also get a doctor struck off the medical register. Did this policy lead to disaster for women’s health?
It lead to Ireland achieving one of the lowest maternal death rates in the world in 2010. That rate has recently increased to the same level as France’s, but it’s still lower than the UK’s. Every preventable death is a tragedy, but the idea that the Eighth Amendment is bringing “suffering and even death” to women just isn’t true.
The debate over the 2013 legislation that legalised abortion on the grounds of suicide gained a lot of its momentum from a cynical exploitation of the tragic death of an Indian woman named Savita Halappanavar in an Irish hospital.
Three separate inquiries have since concluded Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis mismanagement, a problem that’s on the rise in hospitals in both Ireland and the UK (there’s no space here to get into the details of the case: but Wikipedia’s page is unusually good), but that didn’t stop most of the Irish media running with a story about repressive Irish abortion laws leading to the death of a young woman (the story was leaked to pro-choice groups a few days before it as first published in the Irish Times.
Nor did the fact that her death had nothing to do with suicide make a difference: in the end, what mattered was the narrative – the same narrative that features in the Amnesty video calling for constitutional change.
Those who want to repeal the Eighth amendment are focusing our attention on the hard cases – and they are hard: because there are some situations in which there is no way to avoid suffering and heartbreak. When a baby won’t live long outside the womb, there’s nothing that can take away that grief.
But I know some of these hard cases: cases like that of Baby Liam Óg, who lived for nine weeks, three days and forty minutes after birth, and during that period received so much love from his parents Anne and Liam, his older sister Eileen, and the wider network of family and friends whose lives he touched.
Ireland’s abortion law wasn’t needed to save baby Liam’s life – but it did something else, something crucial. It recognised his dignity and his equality: it stood as a testament to the fact that this child’s nine weeks, three days and forty minutes outside his mother’s womb, as well as the 9 months he lived before he was born, were every bit as worth living, every bit as valuable, as the life of any other person.
Making Liam Óg’s short life shorter would not have helped him – and it would not have helped his parents Anne and Liam. When I speak to families who have continued with pregnancies where there child has a terminal condition, I hear about healing, about closure, about peace. The pain and grief doesn’t go away: of course it doesn’t. But it is not the whole story.
Orla O’Connell is a midwife working in Cork University Hospital who specialises in caring for families suffering going through pregnancy loss. Some of the things families have told her about having their babies:
“It was unbelievably painful but the most healing experience imaginable”.
“Having Timothy has made me a better person, he gave me the gift of understanding what life is about, what I am about and living in the present.”
““The media campaign for termination of pregnancy made me feel like I had something to hide”.
“If abortions had been legal in Ireland I would have done it so I am glad it wasn’t.”
People who want to relieve the suffering of families in this situation by legalising abortion are motivated by genuine compassion. But their solution is the wrong one. There is a better path. There are as many better paths as there are children.
Opening those paths for women and families who feel that every way is closed off is the most important work of the pro-life movement in Ireland. We are not defending the status quo – far from it. The Eighth amendment was only ever a first step: necessary but not sufficient. We, like Amnesty International, think that the more than 4000 terrible journeys that Irish women make to the UK every year to have abortions are a disgrace. The difference is is that we want to address the reasons that women feel they have to make the journeys.
Amnesty would seem to be satisfied with making the journeys shorter, and bringing the clinics where so many women talk about being treated coldly and inhumanly to Ireland.
The Irish pro-choice movement used to be interested in reducing abortion: a conference in the 1998, 5000 Too Many, brought together some of the leading figures in pro-life and pro-choice movements who wanted to co-operate to bring that number down. Since that time, the Irish abortion rate, then the lowest in Europe, has decreased even further.
But now the movement to repeal the Eighth is lead by people like Senator Ivana Bacik, who stood up at that conference to protest its existence, saying that there was no right or wrong number of abortions. Presumably, the more than 16,000 abortions a year that would happen if Ireland’s abortion rate matched the UK’s would be, to her, no loss.
As pressure builds for repeal, the Irish pro-life movement will need to pursue a two-part strategy: a strong defence of the equal right to life that the Eighth Amendment recognises, and a big, broad, progressive campaign against all the things that prevent that right being vindicated. Sexism and family-unfriendly workplace policies; stigma and lack of support for student parents; prejudice against people with disabilities and economic injustice. All these are obstacles to the true abolition of abortion in Ireland, and while they still exist pro-lifers will always have a mission.
But it’s a mission that our constitution and our laws still recognise as a good one, and a mission that is both inspired and aided by the Eighth Amendment’s clear and unambiguous affirmation that all human beings are truly equal. I’m hardly the world’s most patriotic person, but the existence of the Eighth amendment has always made me quietly proud of my country.
Ben Conroy is studying PPE at St John’s College. He’s worked as a freelance journalist and has been published in newspapers such as The Irish Times and The Irish Catholic. He also blogs for Patheos.