Americans tend to have a sentimental interest in Ireland. We think of Guinness and “Danny Boy” and “Whiskey In The Jar,” Saint Patrick and the Book of Kells and the monks who saved civilization.
But it’s time to get real. On Friday last week, the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, which had enshrined a right-to-life protection for unborn children. More than 66 percent voted to repeal the amendment, and only 33 percent voted against repeal. The referendum marks the first time in history a people have freely chosen to embrace mothers freely killing their unborn children.
The Irish journalist John Waters, writing about the referendum on Monday in First Things, captured the essence of the thing: “history seemed to have gone into reverse: the Resurrection behind, Calvary in front. On Friday, the Irish people climbed Calvary backwards, in the name of progress.”
It’s difficult to understand the results of the referendum in any other terms. Progress in the name of liberalism has conquered whatever last vestiges of Christian morality still obtained in Irish public life, and Ireland now joins the rest of the western world in its inexorable march toward liberty for license, bereft of religious imperatives like Thou Shall Not Commit Murder.
The referendum result is not surprising. If the same vote were held here in America, where polls for many years have indicated we’re split about 60-40, with the majority holding that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, we’d probably get the same result.
What is surprising, at least on the surface, is the means: that legalized abortion was introduced to the country by referendum. Abortion came to be legal in the United States and the United Kingdom by an edict from the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade and an act of parliament in 1967, respectively. In Ireland, the people themselves decided that mothers have the right to kill their unborn children.
Legalizing Abortion Transforms The Moral Life Of A Nation
Once the shock wears off, however, even this should not be so surprising. The entire western world has concluded, against the claims of Christianity and in accord with the pagans of ancient Rome, that the unborn have no rights.
Far more surprising is that Ireland’s Eighth Amendment was only passed in 1983, when the rest of the world was legalizing abortion, and that it only took one generation to throw it out. It’s a testament to the inexorable logic of the liberal order, which has played out along these lines in even the most Catholic countries.
Consider France, where abortion went from a crime punishable by death to a medical benefit paid for by the state in less than 20 years. To boost the birthrate and replenish population losses from World War I, France criminalized abortion in 1920. During the German occupation, the Vichy regime made abortion a capital crime. The last person to be executed by the French state for performing abortions was a 39-year-old woman named Marie Louise-Giraud, who was beheaded by guillotine in the courtyard of a Paris prison on July 30, 1943.
How monstrous that seems today, whatever one’s views on abortion. Yet Louise-Giraud performed 27 abortions. Should she have faced any consequences? Kevin Williamson was infamously fired from The Atlantic for pointing out, in an admittedly trollish way, the unwillingness of abortion advocates to talk about the reality of abortion. As he wrote in an essay for the Wall Street Journal after his firing, “If it isn’t homicide, then it’s no more morally significant than getting a tooth pulled. If it isn’t homicide, then there’s no real argument for prohibiting it. If it is homicide, then we need to discuss more seriously what should be done to put an end to it.”
France, like America and the rest of Europe, was unwilling to have that discussion. In 1975, French lawmakers legalized abortion. By 1982, the French social security system sponsored the cost of providing abortions. By 2001, a minor could get an abortion without parental consent. In 2015, a mandatory seven-day waiting period for abortion was abolished, and it became available on demand.
Nothing Can Keep a Secular Liberalism From Brutalizing The Weak
Why shouldn’t Ireland join these ranks? There is nothing inherent to a wholly secular liberal order that can prevent the transformation of individual liberty into a license to kill the unborn. If they are an inconvenience, they can be killed. Like the rest of the moral order, the Sixth Commandment is no impediment to the claims of unfettered individualism.
The reality that so many of us do not wish to confront, and that the Irish referendum thrusts upon us, is that liberalism divorced from Christianity means nothing less than the reintroduction of the pagan brutality of Rome and Tenochtitlan, where life was cheap and the lives of the weakest were the cheapest.
Indeed, the plain truth is that the Catholic Church civilized the Irish, drawing them out of their paganism and into the light of faith. Now, 15 centuries on, the Irish are abandoning the church in droves. In the space of a few decades, the Catholic Church in Ireland has imploded. Its teachings and rites are now as mysterious to the modern Irish as the lost pagan rituals were to Irish Catholics a generation ago.
It is not all that remarkable that such a people would embrace the killing of the unborn under the banner of human rights. It is remarkable that they did not do it sooner.