The result has not yet been officially announced, but the exit polls of yesterday’s referendum in Ireland suggest a landslide victory in favour of repealing the 8th Amendment. If this result stands, then today marks a historic and sad day for the country as it votes to remove the constitutional right to life for the unborn child. When the 8th Amendment was ratified in 1983 it was a huge step forward for human rights: it enshrined the right to life of both the mother and the child. So it is ironic that many of the same people who consider themselves to be advocates for the oppressed have now denied the most fundamental human right for the most vulnerable in society. Gandhi said that “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” By that standard, Ireland’s status as a great country has been immeasurably diminished by today’s referendum result.
This is not the time nor the place to rehearse the arguments of either side of the debate. But it will be helpful to briefly address the question at the heart of the referendum: when does human life begin? I believe that it begins at conception, and all the scientific evidence appears to confirm this claim. A study published in 2016 in the journal Cell Biology found that a human zygote (a fertilised egg) is ‘embryo-autonomous.’ The researchers in this study discovered that one cell, with its complete genetic content, begins to divide and to grow. In other words, fertilisation is the moment when an autonomous zygote is created and begins to develop into a fully-formed human being.
Yet many people have no problem denying the evidence when they label foetuses as “parasites,” even though that has been scientifically proven to be false. It is true that a foetus is a “clump of cells” in the same way that I, as a fully-formed adult, am a clump of cells. But I am also a human being. And so whether an abortion occurs at one week, 12 weeks, or 30 weeks, it is the intentional destruction of a human life. This tendency to ignore the scientific evidence was summed up well by Melanie McDonagh in the Spectator:
If, when, the Amendment is done away with, we shall instead see the entirely irrational situation that a foetus will only be a baby if its mother says so. That’s not a victory for science or reason but for utilitarianism.
And yet this debate has, from its inception, been clouded in confusion. It has often been portrayed as one in which conservative, religious believers (pro-life) are pitted against progressive, secular unbelievers (pro-abortion). For example, the pro-abortion camp in Ireland sees itself as offering liberation from the religious dogma of the Catholic Church in a nation where 78% of people still identify as Catholic. But in reality, it does nothing of the sort. It is true that Christians and other religious believers affirm the dignity and right to life of the unborn child. But you don’t have to be a Christian or a religious believer to acknowledge that the intentional destruction of a fledgling human life is wrong. In the UK, we are seeing the rise of groups like the ‘Alliance of Pro-Life Students’ which now has eight groups meeting at universities throughout the country. These groups are non-partisan and have no religious affiliation whatsoever. So it is not only religious believers who see that the rights of the unborn child need to be protected.
Debates are won and lost through the power of words. And the “Yes” campaign have been remarkably effective in their use of language: the word which won the vote for them so decisively was undoubtedly “compassion.” The campaign stated that it represents people who “believe that Ireland is a compassionate country which needs laws that reflect the reality of people’s lives.” Last night the Irish health minister Simon Harris tweeted that he hoped to wake up to a country that is “more compassionate, more caring and more respectful.” By implication, pro-life campaigners aren’t compassionate, aren’t caring, and aren’t respectful. The message from the majority of politicians, media commentators and policy makers has been loud and clear: being pro-abortion is “compassionate” whilst being pro-life is “nasty”. The outcome of the referendum suggests that the majority of Irish people have swallowed this narrative whole. After all, who doesn’t want a more compassionate and caring society?
And yet the tragic irony is that the decision to repeal the 8th Amendment creates the least compassionate environment imaginable for the unborn child. The 8th Amendment saved lives. It created a culture in which human life is valued and potential mothers were offered the ability to pause and truly consider all of their options before making a decision from which there is no going back. To describe the killing of those who have no voice, no defence, and no choice as “compassionate” is absurd.
The warning from State Minister Patrick O’Donovan that the referendum may have unintended consequences has gone largely ignored. The repeal will effectively hand politicians a blank cheque to bring in abortion on demand. If Ireland wants an insight into its future in this matter, it may do well to look across the water to the UK. There have been over 8 million abortions there since the Abortion Act was introduced in 1967, and 90% of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome are now aborted. Even some of those who campaigned to change the law, such as Lord Steel, later regretted the decision saying that there have been too many abortions. The old adage that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare” might win votes, but it doesn’t work out in reality.
We must remember that this referendum is not about abstract concepts of rights and bodily autonomy, but about real people whose lives are deeply affected by abortion. There is no doubt that the outcome of this vote has far-reaching and devastating consequences. And yet, how Christians behave in the aftermath of the referendum will be highly significant: we must love and pray for our enemies, even when we adamantly disagree with them. We can pray, too, for a day when Ireland will recognise the need for the unborn to receive the same right to life that is available to all human beings.
Michael Shaw is the Editor of Cornerstone Network. He was formerly a Broadcast Journalist and Associate Producer at the BBC, and is now studying Theology at Oxford University. You can follow him on Twitter here.