Maith thú, Ireland! This weekend, the Irish people voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion, blowing away one of the last dark clouds of Catholic theocracy that lingered over the Emerald Isle. The referendum repealed the notorious Eighth Amendment, passed in 1983, which banned abortion in all except a tiny handful of cases where pregnancy threatened the woman’s life (and even that narrow exception was bitterly contested).
It’s not just the victory, but the magnitude of the victory that came as a shock. The pro-repeal side won 66% to 33%, a 2-to-1 landslide. They won 39 of Ireland’s 40 counties, both urban and rural regions, both men and women, and every age group under 65.
Earlier polls had shown repeal clinging to a slim lead, so this was a nailbiter right up to the election, and the celebration was all the more joyous for it. As the Irish Times put it, it was an “overwhelming desire for change that nobody foresaw“. Some credit is doubtless due to the #HomeToVote campaign, which inspired pro-choice Irish expats all over the world to return and cast a ballot.
This result is all the more remarkable because it’s an almost perfect mirror of the margin by which the Eighth Amendment originally passed. In just 35 years, the Irish public went from 2-to-1 opposition to 2-to-1 support. Practically speaking, Irish women seeking an abortion could always travel to the U.K. (assuming they had the means), but the ban stood as a symbol of disregard for pregnant people’s bodily autonomy and lives. No longer.
It’s hard, now, to believe that even legalizing divorce in Ireland was a knock-down-drag-out political battle (and that was in 1995!). There was a long time when the Roman Catholic church wielded near-absolute power there. But in the last few years, they’ve been battered by one awful scandal after another, all of which showed the hollowness of their pretensions to moral authority.
There were reports on the tens of thousands of children who were molested and tortured in church schools over decades. There was a reckoning with the women who were enslaved in the Magdalene laundries, and their babies who were neglected to death and thrown away like garbage.
And of most relevance here, there was the tragedy of Savita Halappanavar, who was killed by anti-choice dogma. Her life would have been easy to save, but her doctors, claiming their hands were tied, stood by and did nothing as a doomed pregnancy turned into deadly blood poisoning.The church responded to these outrages with arrogance and denial, believing they just needed to hunker down and weather the storm and could soon go back to giving orders the way they always had. But the Irish people voted with their feet, shown by a dramatic poll in 2012 that found religiosity was plummeting. Ireland’s decisive 2015 vote for marriage equality should have been the first sign of how much the church’s grasp had slipped.
This vote is an even more unmistakable message, showing that religious dogma no longer reigns in Ireland. Irish voters certainly seem to think so:
As the final tally was announced showing over 66 percent of voters supported lifting the ban, crowds in the ancient courtyard of Dublin Castle began chanting “Savita! Savita!” in honor of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died of sepsis during a protracted miscarriage after being denied an abortion at a Galway hospital in 2012.
For whatever it matters, Savita’s parents supported repeal and were happy at the result: “We’ve got justice for Savita, and what happened to her will not happen to any other family now.”
We can also enjoy the stunned reactions among supporters of the Eighth. Ireland’s anti-choice groups cried that the vote was “a tragedy of historic proportions“. The Catholic bishops said that the result was “chilling” and risked cementing a perception that the church is regarded with “indifference”.
Possibly the best of all was two American anti-choicers who had moved to Ireland because it had no legal abortion. They were very sad and were insisting the vote must have been rigged.
Ireland’s Parliament still has to pass legislation to implement the decision. But with the ruling party in support, that should be a formality. The bill that’s likely to go forward will permit abortion without restriction in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and afterward with a doctor’s approval if the pregnancy is non-viable or poses a risk to the woman’s life or health.
It’s tempting to imagine that this result shows the accelerating pace of moral progress. Even when the world seems dark and gloomy, there are signs of hope, and bad old ideas are melting away. If one country can throw off the church’s yoke in such a short time, why can’t it happen elsewhere too?