Ireland and the quiet revolution

The voters of Ireland have just voted to overturn the 8th amendment to the Constitution of Ireland1. This amendment was approved by a referendum in late 1983 and it recognised the equal right to life of the pregnant woman and the embryo or foetus. It was passed by 66.9% of the voters, with only 53.7% of those eligible, deigning to vote. The amendment was supported by centre right political parties and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and was opposed by some Labour Party members (including future president of Ireland, Mary Robinson), feminists and trade unions2.

This 8th amendment effectively made abortion illegal in Ireland, only allowing it where the life of the pregnant woman was in danger. So, a woman could be gaoled for up to 14 years for having an illegal abortion (prior to 2013, it was life imprisonment). As a consequence of this, women or girls who are impregnated as a result of incest or rape were forced to have the child or risk prosecution, unless their life or health was at risk. Similarly, a woman carrying a dying or malformed foetus would be forced to carry it to term. Healthcare workers also face harsh punishment for assisting with an abortion2,3. A further consequence of this restrictive law was that women wishing to have an abortion, would simply travel across the Irish Sea to Great Britain to have one. It has been estimated that 3,500 women made that trip every year. It is also estimated that another 2,000 per annum ended their pregnancies with pills they bought over the internet and smuggled into Ireland.

The recent referendum reversed the proportions of the 1983 referendum, with 66.4% for overturning the 8th and 33.6% opposed, with voter turnout at a near historic high of 64.1%1. Three years ago, almost to the day, Ireland passed a referendum to amend the constitution to allow same sex marriage. That passed by a significant margin of 62.1% to 37.9%, with a similarly large turnout of 61%4. Both of these referenda were generally opposed by the Catholic Church. These are signs that Ireland is emerging from its shackled subservience to the will of the Catholic Church. This emergence was probably hastened in recent years by the uncovering of extensive child abuse within the church by the Irish Child Abuse Commission of 20095.

This decline in the influence of religion is occurring throughout the western world, and the religious are putting up a variety of rear-guard actions to try to reverse it. In Australia, this manifests itself in the delay of the adoption of same sex marriage, the subsequent secret enquiry into ‘religious freedom’ (really the freedom to continue to discriminate), the continued funding of religious chaplains in public schools, and the continued opposition to assisted dying legislation. The religious are losing their hegemony and they do not like it. Such addictions die hard6. However, die they will.




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