Ireland’s Abortion Referendum: What Did Irish Voters Sign Up For?

By Michael D'Emic
May 30, 2018

With the resounding “Yes” vote in the abortion referendum, the Irish electorate has taken the next step on the road it began with the same sex marriage plebiscite three years ago. The Irish government now proposes to pass legislation by Christmas that will allow for abortion on demand up to twelve weeks of pregnancy (the majority of cases) and in restricted circumstances thereafter.

The details are important. In Ireland, the strength of the “Yes” campaign resided largely in its focus upon the rare, hard cases, such as “fatal fetal abnormalities.” In this light, a “Yes” vote might be seen as a compassionate choice. Surely, such individual instances are difficult. Arguably, the same might be said, though with considerably less justification, for pregnancies resulting from rape. There remains the problem, however, that these are special and unusual cases. And they were built into the structure of the debate in a way that distorted its meaning. If such cases were the principal reason for lifting of the constitutional ban on abortion, the broad legislation that the Irish government is now proposing is in no way justified. So much was pointed out to the Irish electorate by competent legal authority prior to the vote.

The other plank of the “Yes” campaign was, of course, the appeal to women’s reproductive rights, or an absolute right to bodily autonomy. It was the same notion that led Irish voters to favor same sex marriage in 2015. It stems from the delusion that nature counts for nothing and that there is no such thing as an objective moral order—an order that makes demands upon every human being inasmuch as we are something more than a mere bundle of subjective choices.

The objective moral order begins with objective facts. In the context of the last two Irish referenda, the first fact to be considered is that, in nature, the purpose of sex is to make babies. This is as much a fact for humans as it is for every other animal on the planet. It remains a fact whether or not the two persons engaging in sex intend this to be the result and, indeed, even when it is their explicit intention that this not be the result. If this were not so, there would be no such thing as an unintended pregnancy. The moral response to this fact is that both of the parties, whatever their intention, either accept responsibility for this possible outcome or simply refrain from sex. The vote in favor of same sex marriage, which is sterile by nature, has the effect of denying the natural purpose of sex. The vote in favor of abortion is the rejection of the only moral response possible to nature’s purpose.

The other objective fact to be considered is that a baby that results from the fulfillment of nature’s purpose is just that—a baby, that is, an autonomous human being. This fact remains a fact whether we call it a “fetus,” an “embryo,” or a “clump of cells.” If this were not the case, there would be no fuss about abortion. It would be an easy rather than a difficult choice.

The only possible moral response to this outcome is to protect and nurture the newly engendered human being. Here, however, the moral response involves not only the two persons whose sexual relations have engendered the new life but also society as a whole. The primary responsibility rests with the father and the mother; but their family, their community and, in the last resort, the state also have a stake in the protection of the new life. This broad responsibility exists because, in point of fact, human life has an immediate right to such protection. If it does not, then nothing does, and the moral order does not exist.

And yet, it is precisely this—a fundamental link between human “being-ness” and moral order—that the reproductive rights advocates of abortion in Ireland take issue with. Their case is clearly laid out in an article in The Guardian by the Irish writer Anne Enright, which is representative.

The following excerpts from this piece will demonstrate my point. I quote them in full in order to avoid doing violence to the author’s meaning:
The eighth amendment to the Irish constitution acknowledges the right to life of “the unborn” and this seemed to invent a new category of rights-holder, possibly a new kind of person. By acknowledging the “equal right to life of the mother” an impregnated woman was changed from a human being into a relationship, that of motherhood, and a peculiar equivalence established. Pregnancy was a binary state, in which two souls temporarily shared the same blood supply. The question of who had it first was neither here nor there and a fertilised egg was a grown adult, temporarily inconvenienced by being a few hundred cells large.

In 2016, there were 63,897 live births in Ireland. The medical estimate, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is that up to a quarter of pregnancies end in miscarriage, which means that around 20,000 conceptions could have failed in Ireland last year due to natural causes. If all life is sacred, then all life did not get the memo.

If a conceived embryo is already, and instantly, a full human being, this raises questions about what human beings can do to each other, and why. This is not the way I usually think – my thoughts about abortion are always uncertain and, I hope, slow to judge – but if you want an absolute argument about all this, then here it is. What right does another human being have to be inside your body for the best part of a year, to make their way out of your private parts in a bloody, difficult and painful way, and then turn to you for nourishment, not to mention love – perhaps for the rest of your life?

In the nine months occupation that is a pregnancy, the embryo has no agency, it doesn’t mean to be there, and no intention to cause harm. But an absence of intention does not confer any rights. Just because someone does not mean to use you does not give them the right to use you. The fact that an embryo can not ask for consent does not mean that consent must be given. An embryo takes no pleasure from its presence in your body, but this does not give it ownership of your body any more than a grown man has ownership over your body’s interior. The hidden fact in the eighth amendment is that the term “unborn” does not mean “human being” as the mother is a human being – if it did then the mother’s rights might also be asserted. The “unborn” here is code for “biology,” “happenstance” or “life itself.”

It may be argued that when a woman consents to unprotected sex she is also consenting to carry any resulting pregnancy to term, but I do not know if you can make an agreement with someone who does not yet exist. The hidden power, in this contract-with-no-one, lies not with the physically powerless embryo, or the legally powerless pregnant woman, it lies with the father, or with the father-as-state, who asserts control, from a sometimes indifferent distance, over both.


These excerpts are a bit rambling and, like much of the rest of the article, appear at times to have been torn from the pages of The Handmaid’s Tale. It is simple enough, nevertheless, to boil them down to the following propositions:

  • A “fertilized egg” is not a “full” human being and has no rights.

  • All (human) life is not sacred.

  • Even if the “embryo” were a “full” human being, it would have no right to “occupy” its mother’s womb in order to be born and then to turn to her for nourishment and love.

  • The consensual act of sexual intercourse carries with it no responsibility. Fertility is a personal choice, and nature counts for nothing.

  • Conclusion: there is no objective moral order.



This is scary stuff. But whether they intended to or not, it is exactly what sixty-seven percent of Irish voters signed up for on May 25th. What Ireland does between now and Christmas—which, interestingly enough, is the celebration of an unplanned pregnancy, albeit a supernatural one, carried to term—will tell the world whether they really meant it.