Ireland had some extremely good news recently: they repealed the amendment of their constitution that forbade abortion. In fact, they repealed it by a landslide. And that landslide worries Catholics. I’ll show you what they fear so much, and what this vote means for women. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a sharp rebuke to religious zealotry.
Congratulations Again, Ireland!
A few years ago I cheered with Ireland over their repeal of anti-gay bigotry as Irish people voted on the proposed Thirty-Fourth Amendment to their constitution. The amendment concerned marriage equality. If passed, same-sex couples would be able to marry. And the vote was an astonishing outpouring of love. In the end, the results were very decisive: 62% for, 37% against, with votes following along a rural/urban divide that looks familiar to American eyes.
Even back then, in 2015, people on the bigotry side of the equation expressed deep concern about what it meant for the country’s traditional deep entanglement with Catholicism. They had good reason to be concerned, too. The religion’s stranglehold on Ireland was already fading. It was only hastened by the Catholic child-rape scandal and the exposure of ancient horrors like Tuam’s mass graves.
In 2012, a Guardian writer noted that Catholicism was rapidly declining in Ireland. She writes that in 2005, 69% of Irish people said they were “religious.” That number fell in 2012 to 47%. In 2017, only seven men were studying for the priesthood in Ireland. And less than 20% of the population regularly attends church services.
Yes, Catholicism is completely, absolutely, and crushingly declining in Ireland.
Why Oh Why…
Naturally, a sea change like that invited speculation.
The Guardian writer was sure that the decline had begun well before the child-rape scandal went public. She blames the 1960s for the drop–specifically, contraception and television. Her opinion is shared by more scholarly sources (also see this), like this 2017 Irish Times article:
It wasn’t simply the scandals and the revelations of horrific behaviour on the part of certain members of church officialdom that caused disaffection among the church-going population; these were stimuli that added impetus to an already growing momentum.
I’d agree. Americans are figuring the same things out about Protestantism. Yes, the scandals and politicization alienate huge numbers of both potential recruits and existing members. But a lot of people had already figured out that Christianity is superfluous to their lives, if not actively damaging.
Despite these losses, Catholic leaders still respond to criticisms in the same way. They silence critics, brusquely and with finality, and lay blame for their decline everywhere except upon themselves. They haven’t figured out yet that they are now supplicants and salespeople, not lords and masters, in the world’s religious marketplace.
So yeah, those leaders knew quite well that it wasn’t just a vote about abortion.
Circling Around the Real Problem.
This vote was an attempt to clean up the mess of a culture war dumped on Ireland courtesy of its Catholic overlords. Anti-abortion efforts in Europe and America probably wouldn’t even exist without Catholicism.
Indeed, Catholics were the primary movers in that culture war in America until after Roe v. Wade got decided in America, at which point fundagelical leaders made a deliberate decision to join forces with them. The gambit worked, grandly, to regain dominance through political activism.
And yet both sides in Ireland–for and against repeal–danced around the whole topic of religion. Nobody wanted to talk about the fancily-dressed elephant in the room.
The people seeking to repeal the amendment, the “YES” side, talked about human rights and drilled down on how dangerous it is for women in a country that denies them full autonomy. Those seeking to keep the amendment, the “NO” side, talked about personhood–which is a red herring–and regurgitated the lies they tell about the supposed dangers of abortion.
Nobody seemed willing to talk about the Catholic Church’s role in this law’s existence.
A Legacy of Death.
A Dublin street artist, Aches, created a beautiful mural honoring Savita Halappanavar before the vote. Savita was an Indian dentist working in Ireland. After she was denied a therapeutic abortion in 2012, she died of septic miscarriage–and her legacy became a flashpoint. That mural became a shrine; people set bouquets and touching notes there. Her name turned up often, in hashtag lists in social media posts regarding the upcoming vote this month.
Ireland doesn’t have walls enough to enshrine the other victims of this brutal law. From Magdalene Laundries to graveyards full of the bodies of women who died in childbirth, Ireland’s laws around pregnancy have always been a millstone around Irish women’s necks.
Over and over again, these shocking incidents sent a message: Abortion laws don’t actually lower abortion rates. All they do, literally, is kill pregnant women.
More and more people have received that message.
Finally, outcry around these laws became great enough to justify putting the matter to a vote.
The campaign was a hell of a thing–with lots of heart-pounding moments on both sides. But gradually, one side pulled ahead.
Votes And Rights.
I get really squirrelly around the idea of putting people’s human rights to a vote. The tyranny of the majority should never be the determining factor in deciding who gets a full roster of rights. I’m still amazed to know that fundagelicals in America never consider that when they’re finished voting on my rights, maybe one day it’ll be their rights up on the chopping block. They always, without fail, think that they’ll always have a majority–and thus never face the whittling-away of their own rights.
Worse still, they always think that their own rights will always be sacred to those who seek to control others. (Think about those many voters who voted for Trump, only to be bitten hard by his policies–like this Trumper who still doesn’t understand what happened.)
Instead, Americans tend to decide that stuff in court, and I think things are better that way.
This time, though, the vote seems fully justified.
For one, it was a setting-to-rights of a legal nightmare. The original amendment had torn human rights from women in Ireland. Now the vote sought to restore some of those rights.
And for another, it seems to me that people in Ireland generally were ready to send a crystal-clear message to the Catholic church and its serried forces.
What A Message, Too!Exit polls gave us all hope, and then the final tally came.
Irish voters hadn’t just voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
They had demolished it.
The Guardian tells us that some 64% of registered voters had turned out for the vote. And only one constituency in Ireland had voted to keep the amendment: Donegal, where 51% opposed repeal. For the country as a whole, the results averaged out to 66% yes versus 33% no.
And you remember that 2015 marriage vote I told you about a minute ago? Back then, only one constituency had voted to keep marriage straights-only: Roscommon-Galway. In the abortion vote, though, they voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment. I reckon people can change.
If there’s one thing the Catholic Church despises, however, it is change.
Change has never been kind to authoritarian regimes.
Oh Noes, Forced-Birthers are SO WORRIED AND UPSET, Y’ALL.
The Prime Minister, or taoiseach, of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, said that the vote was “the culmination of a quiet revolution.” He said that his government would be making quick moves to craft legislation providing for safe and legal abortion for the country’s women.
And while human rights activists celebrated, their opponents stewed in their own juices.
One “No” activist said that “what [the Irish] voted on today is the ending of human life.” I do hope she learns about human biology at some point, so she can start spending her sympathy somewhere more constructive.
An anti-repeal group had a similar sentiment: “What Irish voters did yesterday is a tragedy of historic proportions.” And I similarly hope this group eventually notices research about how anti-abortion laws literally do nothing to lower abortion rates, instead only causing the deaths of pregnant women, and starts getting their priorities in order here.
(There I go assuming again that of course they actually want to lower the abortion rate in their country.)
Let them talk. It’s just empty hot air. I wouldn’t expect any less from them.
A Referendum on Catholicism Itself.
A lot of people–most particularly Catholics–saw the whole referendum as a vote of confidence (or lack thereof) in Catholicism itself.
And that’s a correct perception, for what it’s worth.
Well, they got “Time & Temp” in a definitive way with this vote, and I don’t think they liked it.
The Guardian gives us the reactions of Catholic leaders in Ireland. None sounded particularly optimistic about regaining power over Ireland anytime soon.
Eamon Martin, the archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland, said Irish culture had changed and that people had drifted away from the church. Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, told a congregation that the results would be seen as a sign of the marginal role of the church in today’s society.
The writer of that article summarizes with a sentence I never thought I’d see about Ireland:
Ireland’s landslide vote to legalise abortion on Friday signals the end of the Catholic church’s domination of the republic.
But We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet.
Hardline religious leaders in all flavors of Christianity have enmeshed themselves with culture wars. The strategy polarized the flocks, ensuring they became more and more extremist. But it backfired in another important way. It drove away more moderate members and suppressed recruitment.
Now Christianity itself is dying. I used to think that Christians had time to save their sinking ship. I don’t anymore.
But friends, this decline doesn’t mean the religion isn’t dangerous to the rest of us anymore.
It means it’s more dangerous than ever.
The leaders of this religion still command a vast amount of money, and they have a remnant of hardline supporters with nothing else to do but go out and vote on stuff. You’ve probably seen that “Project Blitz” piece in NYT–if you haven’t, then you should. It’s nothing less than a blueprint for how a very dedicated minority of extremists can completely hijack a democracy and turn it into the theocratic nightmare of their dreams. They don’t need a ton of followers to make that happen.
Christians know that this is the endgame. They know that if they don’t enshrine their waning power into law “soon and very soon,” that they will lose all of it forever.
We’ve got the numbers to easily slap them down; those numbers just aren’t voting. That has to change.
Ireland has twice now shown us how it’s done. And Stateside, we’ve seen the tactic work to defeat theocrats. The time for inaction is over.
Victory, Tinged With Sadness for Some.
Savita Halappanavar’s father, reached at his home in India, thanked Ireland’s people for their overwhelming support for the repeal:
We’ve got justice for Savita, and what happened to her will not happen to any other family now. I have no words to express my gratitude to the people of Ireland at this historic moment.
I’m glad that he at least has that small comfort to hold close.
In a few months, the Pope’s due to visit Ireland. I bet I know what he’s going to be talking about while he’s there. I wonder if he’ll even manage to crack a few crocodile tears about how saaaaaaaaaad and worrrrrrrrrrrrried he is about Irish women and babies.
And if he does, I hope the Irish people ask him about what tangible moves he’s making to end child rape within his organization’s ranks.
NEXT UP: Biff story? Biff story! — and after that, a quick check-in with the SBC to examine their handling of their ongoing Paige Patterson crisis, and then onward and upward. (Five years ago, I said to myself, Religion blogging? But what if I run out of things to talk about? Now I just laugh to remember that I ever thought that.) See you then!
It’s important to note that the abortion referendum didn’t totally legalize abortion. It covered only up to 12 weeks. But it’s a very important first step. In America, 89% of all abortions happen within that timeframe.
Also, I ran across these pictures of Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and LOVED them, but the vote didn’t cover Northern Ireland so I had to skip them. If you’ve got time, Jennifer Boyer’s got a slew of photos on Flickr of this subject.
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Lord Snow Presides… is our weekly off-topic chat series. I’ve started us off with a topic, but feel free to chime in with whatever’s on your mind! Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who lives the life of Reilly as the rest of us scurry around making his life easy. Don’t believe people who tell you that that island-caretaker gig is “the best job in the world.” I know the real truth here. I see it in Lord Snow’s sweet pale-green eyes every day.