The 8th Amendment is something we are likely to hear a lot more about in the months and years ahead, as a grassroots movement for its repeal continues to grow. While the issue of Ireland’s abortion legislation will go before a Citizen’s Convention in the near future, many campaigners will be hoping for a referendum and a chance to take the issue to the doorsteps.
The title for this blog post comes from a 1983 Irish Times article, reporting from a Dublin count centre the day after the referendum on the insertion of the 8th Amendment into the Irish constitution. A dejected young campaigner told a journalist that the referendum had been won “with a Carmelite in one hand and a ballot box in the other”, a clever play on Sinn Féin activist Danny Morrison’s suggestion that independence could be achieved with one hand clutching an Armalite and the other a ballot box. Beyond this moment of humour captured by the national press, the ’83 campaign is more remembered as an incredibly embittered one. Thomas Bartlett contents in his masterful history of Ireland that the referendum can be seen as “the most divisive and bad-tempered debate in Irish public life since the campaign over acceptance of the Treaty in 1922.”
Putting the referendum in context:
Just what is the 8th Amendment? In short, the Irish public were asked in 1983 to vote on the inclusion of the following words into the Irish Constitution:
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.
This Amendment passed on 7 September 1983, endorsed by 67% of those who voted. Turnout was low, at under 54%. The referendum was not designed to outlaw abortion in Ireland, as that was already the case. Under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, abortion was already illegal here. Rather, anti-abortion campaigners feared that there was a possibility of a judicial ruling which could change the law, and sought to solidify the illegal status of abortion through inserting this new 8th Amendment in the constitution.
As Diarmaid Ferriter notes in his overview of twentieth century Ireland, The Transformation of Ireland, abortion remained one of the most divisive subjects in the Ireland of the 1980s. He points towards an infamous 1982 poster as proof of the “intensity, extremism and gratuitousness that existed” around the subject. Proclaiming that “the abortion mills of England grind Irish babies into blood that cries out to heaven for vengeance”, the posters were a cynical attempt to play on some kind of nationalist sentiment, with intellectuals on the Catholic right claiming that “those looking to liberalise the laws were attempting to turn the Republic back into a mere province of the UK.” In a similar vein, the ever-controversial T.D Oliver J. Flanagan declared in the Dáil a decade earlier that while it was popular in Europe “to talk of sex, divorce and drugs, these things are foreign in Ireland and to Ireland and we want them kept foreign.”
The belief that sinister outside forces were seeking to attack an Irish way of life can be found also in publications like the 1983 booklet Abortion Now, which, despite its title, was rabidly against the introduction of even the most limited abortion legislation in Ireland. Looking beyond the Brits or the drug-obsessed EU, it blamed the push for abortion on a long-dead philosopher:
We must recognise the modus operandi of the anti-life lobby. It can truly be said that capitalism and Marxism are united in the fight for abortion on demand; the one for money, the other for ideological reasons.
The late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed some remarkable change in Irish society. The decriminalisation of contraception in 1979, at the behest of the Supreme Court, represented a significant milestone victory for the women’s movement in Ireland (even if obtaining contraception remained difficult for many people), but also served as the catalyst for the emergence of new bodies on the religious right, such as the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) in June 1980. While a vibrant women’s movement had emerged in Ireland long before 1983, abortion was not an issue it tended to push to the fore; In Linda Connolly’s excellent study The Irish Women’s Movement: From Revolution to Devolution, it’s noted that “abortion on demand was discussed and researched within IWU [Irishwomen United] initially but strategically not campaigned for” for example. When the Irish Woman’s Right to Choose Group published the pamphlet Abortion: A Choice for Irish Women, they acknowledged that “in a 1977 survey conducted among over two thousand Catholics in the Republic, 95.4% said that they thought abortion was wrong.” Yet they drew some hope that a later survey, which asked whether abortion was acceptable under specific circumstances, had different findings. In that, 43% said that they were in favour of abortion if the mother’s health was at risk. This could be read as “a growing acceptance of the need for abortion in some cases and a rejection of the Catholic Church’s absolute condemnation of abortion.”
To the misfortune of the women’s movement and the anti-amendment movement more broadly, much of the discourse around abortion in the early 1980s was shaped by the other side of the debate. Evelyn Mahon has noted that:
The initial dissemination of information on abortion in Ireland was shaped by SPUC in a campaign that spanned more than two years between April 1981 and September 1983….Though formal sex education at that time had not been introduced in schools, SPUC exhibited human embryos in schools and waged philosophical battles in the media over when human life began. Initially, it acted like any other interest group. But a sense of urgency, agency and possibility pervaded their activities and mobilised them into a social movement with a political agenda.
Women’s rights activist Caroline McCamley, in a 2013 interview with Rabble magazine, also expressed the belief that it was the other side of the debate who pushed the issue into public consciousness, remembering that “the pro-life movement put it on the agenda with the campaign leading to the 1983 referendum. I’m not sure when it would have got there if they hadn’t have done that. But they politicised a lot of us with the extreme nature of the 1983 campaign.”
SPUC formed the backbone of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), an umbrella group of 14 associations seeking to amend the constitution. This body succeeded in winning per-election pledges from both Garrett Fitzgerald and Charles Haughey to support a referendum for the amendment to the constitution. While PLAC was capable of raising significant sums of money and coverage for its aims and objectives, it did face political opposition.
The Anti-Amendment Campaign:
In an insightful 2013 contribution to History Ireland magazine, historian Mary Muldowney drew on oral history testimonies of those who participated in the Anti-Amendment Campaign. One activist recalled that while there had been individuals seeking legalislative changes on abortion in Ireland, organised campaigns were another matter. This changed in 1980 with the birth of the Women’s Right to Choose Group in Dublin:
Prior to that there had been individuals, most notably Noel Browne, the Labour and subsequently the Socialist Labour Party TD, who did on several occasions call for what he described as therapeutic abortion to be available in Ireland but no, essentially it wasn’t an issue that was talked about and didn’t really figure on anybody’s radar until 1980 when a small group formed in Dublin, the Women’s Right to Choose Group, with the intention of beginning to break the silence and force the issue into the public domain.
Some of the tactics of the AAC are still utilised today by the Pro Choice movement, for example highlighting the number of women who were daily traveling to the UK for the purpose of obtaining an abortion. The campaign frequently found itself entangled in bitter wars-of-words with the Catholic Hierarchy, who proclaimed in March 1982 that “surely the most defenceless and voiceless in our midst are entitled to the fullest Constitutional protection?” The AAC attacked such statements, but so did others in more unlikely corners; the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh went as far as to say that “this is the Mother and Child Act all over again. Can you force a moral theology on a whole people which is symptomatic of only one church?” In a similar vein, the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral announced his belief that “where there is conflict, the rights of the mother to life and health must take precedence over the unborn child.”
Being such an emotionally charged subject, there was much internal discussion in all political parties, across the spectrum. Sinn Féin would oppose the amendment to the constitution, though the party had earlier described itself as “totally opposed to abortion.” A 1981 policy paper noted that:
There is a need to face up to the problem of abortion no matter what individual opinions are. We do not judge women who have had abortion but recognise that it is an indictment of society that so many women should feel the need to avail of abortion. We are opposed to the attitudes and forces in society that impel women to have abortions. We are totally opposed to abortion.
Many Sinn Féin activists, and in particular female members of the party, were prominently involved in the campaign against the amendment in spite of that internal debate and discussion. Within the Workers’ Party, there was some similar ambiguity. The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IR A and the Workers’ Party, describes the manner in which the “WP’s refusal to become actively involved with the Anti-Amendment Campaign drew criticism from within the party”, though party leader Tomás Mac Giolla did condemn politicians for bowing to “ultra-Catholic” pressure, and suggested that the State was “moving back towards a Catholic Constitution for a Catholic people.” From Labour, Sinn Féin, The Workers’ Party and smaller socialist parties of the left, those against the amendment were able to draw on experienced political activists.
Trouble in Montrose:
As 1983 progressed, the referendum only became a more divisive issue. This was reflected in the emerging rows at RTE, where the national broadcaster struggled with the issue and how it should be covered. RTE producers condemned the RTE Authority for banning a Late Late Show referendum debate, arguing that “the essential function of a public service in a democracy must be to provide a principal forum for public debate on matters of public concern.” Yet RTE were also under fire from SPUC, who insisted that “an Anti-Amendment bias can be easily detected in many programmes”, blaming this on the fact many RTE employees were members of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which was opposed to the amendment. The RTE Authority Chairman, Fred O’Donovan, came under fire for stating his view that the referendum was essentially a question of “death on demand.”
Debate did come, with RTE’s popular Today Tonight hosting two teams (each consisting of two men and one woman) in February. The papers seemed dejected to report, as the Irish Independent did, that there was no “aggro” in the “low-key debate.” Further debates followed on the same programme,including this clash between William Binchy and Mary Robinson:
While there was panic in Montrose, some remarkable television was produced in the UK on the subject of the referendum. Channel 4 screened a programme which followed the tales “the life of a deserted wife and a mother of four in Clondalkin”, both of whom had sought abortions in the UK.
The Pro Life Amendment Campaign enjoyed the support of Fianna Fáil,and Charles Haughey was heavily criticised by the journalist and feminist campaigner Nell McCafferty for his television broadcast in support of the Amendment, with McCafferty telling a press conference “if anyone doubted that the amendment was anti-woman, they had only to watch the performance on television of Mr Charles Haughey, who could not bring himself to mention women, or pregnancy or mothers in the course of his broadcast.” Yet other politicians became caught up in the debate too; Documenting Irish Feminists: The Second Wave notes:
Political opposition to the proposed amendment…intensified only at a very late stage of the campaign. The final three weeks of the campaign started with the Minister for Finance, Alan Dukes, stating his opposition to the amendment, and he was followed by Ministerial colleagues Gemma Hussey and Nuala Fennell….In September 1983, the Tánaiste and Leader of the Labour Party, Dick spring, said that a concerted campaign was being waged with the support of the Hierarchy to “roll back the tide on social issues.”
Beyond politicians, political activists of all stripes sometimes grabbed the most headlines. One infamous activist interrupted a meeting in the Mansion House to denounce RTE journalist Anne Daly as “the tramp who presents Women Today“, and Mary Robinson as a woman “with the morals of a tom cat”. As noted in Diarmuid Ferriter’s study Occasions of Sin: Sex and Sexuality in Modern Ireland,the protestor went as far as to proclaim that “pregnancy never ensues from rape”.
The Amendment passes, but Dublin is divided:
The 8th Amendment was passed by the Irish public on 7 September 1983. With a turnout of 53.67%, 841,233 votes were cast in favour of the Amendment, comfortably defeating the 416,136 votes cast against it. Jason Kelleher’s Irish Political Maps website has mapped the voting of the country, presenting some interesting findings:
The amendment was defeated only in five constituencies in the capital, passing in every constituency outside Dublin. This led to a huge amount of analysis of rural/urban divisions. Aengus Fanning described the results as proof “that the gap in social attitudes between the major cities and towns, on the one hand, and rural areas is continuing to widen.” The Independent described it as the “backlash of the middle class”, pointing to the particularly high ‘No’ in areas such as Dun Laoghaire. Certainly, it was clear from the results in Dublin that there was a base there to rebuild, and in the weeks and months that followed the referendum public meetings and rallies saw the re-emergence of a movement. A Repeal the Eight Amendment Campaign (REAC) would be formed in March 1992, but there was plenty of activism between 1983 and then.
Yet for others, the stress and tensions of 1983 had proven enough. One activist recalled that:
After the abortion referendum I reckon I had made up my mind that I was living in a society where I was absolutely and utterly alienated and that I wasn’t going to do anything about it…I was just going to retreat back into the house. If I had been younger I might have fought it but I just thought – this society has nothing to say to me.