In 1973, soon after the US Supreme Court established a right to abortion in Roe v. Wade, Charles E. Rice concluded that “the essential remedy to the abortion problem is a constitutional amendment.” Rice is an important figure in the intellectual history of the antiabortion movement that is now, with the recent overturning of Roe, enjoying its moment of triumph. He was a cofounder of the Conservative Party of New York State, formed by those who considered the Republican Party too liberal; one of his scholarly tracts is an attack on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As a professor of constitutional law, he established Notre Dame University in Indiana as a redoubt of the conservative Catholic legal thinking whose influence most fully blossomed when Donald Trump appointed Rice’s colleague and associate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
But back in 1973 Rice despaired of the possibility that even a Republican-dominated Supreme Court would overturn Roe. He hoped instead for a constitutional amendment that would be “unequivocal” in outlawing both abortion and all forms of contraception that could be deemed to be “abortifacient”: “In order to prevent the licensing and legal distribution of abortifacients, the constitutional amendment on abortion must prohibit abortion at every stage beginning with the moment of conception.”
In the US, this was pure fantasy. The social and political conditions necessary for the passage of such a constitutional amendment did not exist. At the time, even evangelical Christians were reluctant to engage with the question of abortion, which they tended to see as a peculiarly (and suspiciously) Catholic obsession. But there was a place where Rice’s idea could be tried out: Ireland. In 1981 and 1982, when right-wing Irish Catholic activists were teasing out the wording of a proposed antiabortion amendment to the country’s constitution, Rice was the man whose advice and guidance they followed most closely. These campaigners sought and received Rice’s approval of the text that became, in 1983, the Eighth Amendment. For the Catholic conservatives who then seemed to be on the wrong side of US history, victory in Ireland was a harbinger of a possible American future. Now that they are, apparently, on the right side of American history, they might do well to remember that their Irish victory turned out to be pyrrhic.
These American conservatives were interested in Ireland partly because many of them (Rice included) were Irish Americans and partly because the old country offered the prospect of an easy win. As an example of preaching to the choir, sending conservative Catholic missionaries from the US to Ireland would be hard to better. Divorce was outlawed, not just by statute but in the text of the Irish constitution. The importation and sale of contraceptives was banned. The laws against “gross indecency” under which Oscar Wilde had been persecuted in England in 1895 were still in force in Ireland. Having or performing an abortion was punishable by life imprisonment.
Ireland was one place where the rot (as they saw it) of permissiveness had not yet set in. There was still, in the English-speaking world, one island of sanctity, one place where church and state were still so entwined that government could be relied on to enforce religious dogmas as civil and criminal law. If Ireland could continue to hold its head above the rising waters of depravity and decadence, the tide of sexual and reproductive reform then sweeping the Western world could be held back—and ultimately turned. As Rice had put it in 1973, quoting an earlier antiabortion ideologue, “It is of transcendent importance that there be in this chaotic world one high spot, however small, which is against the deluge of immorality that is sweeping over us.”
One purpose of this missionary effort was to scare Irish women off the Pill. The first of the American speakers to tour Ireland after Roe v. Wade was Herbert Ratner, a distinguished Chicago-based physician and Catholic convert who warned his audiences that the Pill was “chemical warfare against women.” Speaking in Cork in September 1976, he listed seventy-four of the Pill’s side effects, among them “the loss of sexual pleasure, depression, psychiatric illness, diabetes, obesity, sterility, fibroids, uterine cancer, hair loss and chromosomal damage.” He added that “when you have migraine and you’re on the Pill you’re in immediate danger of a stroke.”
But the other aim was to make abortion into something it had never yet been in Ireland: a political issue. It was already outlawed by Victorian legislation that remained in force from the nineteenth century, when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. No significant political party was in favor of repealing these laws. A small number of radicals argued for abortion rights, but most feminists and liberals were far more concerned with contraception, divorce, and other forms of legalized discrimination against women. What mattered for the Americans, however, was not this indigenous Irish reality but the possibility that Ireland could provide a vicarious triumph to boost their own morale and give them hope for the future.
In November 1973 an American Catholic priest, Father Paul Marx, arrived at Dublin airport. In his hand luggage were three bottles—each containing what he said was the fetus of an aborted baby. As an Irish newspaper reported, “The little bodies in Father Marx’s bag were aged between 10 and 16 weeks. All were perfectly formed human shapes.” Marx landed in Dublin on the same day that Mary McGee, a married mother of four children who had suffered strokes during her pregnancies, was beginning a legal challenge in the Irish Supreme Court to the government’s seizure of some contraceptive jelly she had attempted to import the previous year. He toured Ireland twice in 1973. Catholic religious orders gave him access to their schools, where he displayed to the students color slides of what he said was an abortion, as well as fetuses in bottles.*
By 1976, when he returned to Ireland, Marx had replaced the slides with a film, depicting (according to contemporary newspaper reports) “an actual abortion with the sucking out of the uterus. What was taken from it was poured through a sieve and then the camera zoomed in on decapitated [sic] limbs.” If young audiences were traumatized by these images, the effect was deliberate. Marx insisted that “it was impossible to get through to people unless you shocked them.” At a Marx demonstration in the Mercy convent in Galway, for instance, “a number of people became ill.” The head nun acknowledged that the film was “gruesome” but insisted that showing it was still “worthwhile” as a warning of the “danger and challenges” of “an increasingly promiscuous society.” The point was to instill, especially in teenage girls, a horror not just of abortion but of the alleged results of sexual laxity.
The underlying fixation of these pioneers of the American antiabortion movement remains familiar in the worldview of the far right in the United States and Europe: the allegedly catastrophic decline of white populations. (Hence Republican congresswoman Mary Miller recently hailing the overturning of Roe v. Wade as a “historic victory for white life.”) Abortion was, for them, no more or less evil than contraception—both had the effect of limiting the necessary production of white babies. Ireland’s crushing of women’s reproductive rights had the desirable effect of forcing them to produce large families, making the country an exception that (in this way of thinking) ought to be the rule. Marx, himself born into a Catholic family of seventeen children in Minnesota, claimed that “Ireland is the only developed country with a good reproductive birth rate. All other developed countries are dying out. It would be a shame if Ireland would follow suit and legalize abortion.”
What was seldom said, however, was that Ireland actually had special incentives for women to have abortions in secret. Although attitudes were changing in the 1970s and early 1980s, Ireland’s systems of organized repression against women who became pregnant outside marriage were still very much intact. Girls and women who were judged to pose a moral danger to themselves or others were incarcerated as “penitents,” often with no legal process, in the Magdalene laundries where they had to perform slave labor under harsh conditions. (The last of these institutions did not close until 1996.)
In August 1982 Eileen Flynn was dismissed from her job as an English and history teacher at the Holy Faith convent in John F. Kennedy’s ancestral hometown of New Ross, County Wexford. She was unmarried but had recently given birth to a baby son and was living with the baby’s father. When she appealed her dismissal to the courts, the judge, in his ruling, expressed the view that the nuns had in fact been “far too lenient” in not sacking Flynn earlier. He told Flynn that she was fortunate because “in other places women are being condemned to death for this sort of offence.” The implicit message to any woman who became pregnant out of wedlock was that she should find a way to terminate her pregnancy without letting anyone know. Thousands of Irish women were in fact doing this, going quietly to England for abortions. None of them, at that time, spoke about it.
In 1981, when I was beginning to work as a freelance journalist in Dublin, I saw a poster in my neighborhood advertising a public meeting. Its purpose was to demand that Ireland hold a referendum to insert into its constitution a clause guaranteeing the protection of the “unborn” from the moment of conception. I went, with my girlfriend, to the venue for the meeting: a grand Georgian house on extensive grounds called Temple Hill. It had a two-story modern annex that I thought was a small hospital for infants. It was actually a kind of storage facility for babies whose mothers had, under moral and verbal duress, signed away their parental rights. The infants were kept there while they waited for adoption by good Catholic parents, some of them American. Often, the birth mother’s name was erased from the birth certificate, as if she had never existed. This, for women who were pregnant and unmarried, was the official Irish alternative to abortion.
Temple Hill was run by an order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity. I didn’t realize it then, but one of their customers was the best-known priest in Ireland, Michael Cleary, an exuberant media performer who had acted as emcee when Pope John Paul II conducted a vast open-air mass for hundreds of thousands of young people in Galway in 1979. Cleary had impregnated his twenty-year-old lover, Phyllis Hamilton. After she gave birth to their son Michael Ivor in 1970, Cleary baptized him and then a friend of his drove mother and child to Temple Hill.
According to Hamilton in her memoir Secret Love (1995), “I felt powerless to protest; I had no control over what was happening.” She surrendered her baby to a nun “like I was handing over my soul.” Three weeks later, when she hadn’t yet signed adoption papers, she changed her mind and wanted to keep her baby after all. Calling Temple Hill to explain this, she was told by the woman who answered the phone (almost certainly a nun), “You selfish little bitch. That baby has gone to a very good home and you should be very grateful.” When Hamilton told Cleary she wanted to keep the baby he “went into a rage…and told me how immature I was.” She signed the adoption papers.
At the antiabortion meeting I attended in 1981 the superior, Sister Frances, sat at the top table. Facing her was a row of young nurses in high-necked, starched white uniforms with pointy white headdresses. After the speakers warned of the moral danger facing Ireland and urged the crowd to demand a “pro-life” referendum, someone from the campaign asked for volunteers. After a short silence, Sister Frances the head nun pointed to individual young nurses and volunteered them as activists. None of them spoke a word. They just signed their names on the sheet.
It seemed grimly obvious to me then that, although this idea of writing into the constitution a ban on a procedure that was already banned by law was absurd, the referendum would be held, and it would pass. Abortion was being transformed, as it would be in America, from a physical reality into a marker of identity. Majority identity in Ireland at the time was still defined by loyalty to orthodox Catholicism. The actual experiences of women who had abortions—their lives, their situations, their concrete choices—were successfully occluded. Life as it was really lived in Ireland would not weigh very heavily in the scales against “Life” as a concept that one could be “pro.” The satisfaction of declaring to the world that the unholy writ of Roe v. Wade would never be followed on our side of the Atlantic gave Catholic Ireland an inflated sense of its own importance.
Michael Woods, the minister for health in the Irish government that introduced legislation for the antiabortion referendum, asked the parliament in Dublin to note that “the experience in America is particularly relevant. There are those who say that there has been an American holocaust.” Woods seemed to suggest that Ireland could lead the way to America’s salvation: “If we as a people mark our respect for the life and dignity of the unborn, who knows what ripples may flow throughout the world which has lost its reverence for life in the womb.”
During the referendum campaign, American antiabortion groups sent speakers and organizers to Ireland. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops shipped color brochures showing “the horrors of abortion” and Marx’s organization, Human Life International, sent thousands of direct mail solicitations to Irish American and US Catholic groups seeking funds for the Irish cause. These efforts were unnecessary: the constitutional amendment was passed by two to one, an outcome that was never really in doubt. At least one Western democratic state had drawn a line: there would never, ever, be abortion in Ireland.
From the point of view of American Catholic conservatives, this triumph was an experiment conducted in perfect laboratory conditions, a battle fought on favorable ground and against negligible enemies. But it didn’t work. It failed in its own specific purpose, which was to stop Irish women having abortions. And it failed in its wider mission. The idea behind the constitutional amendment of 1983 was to use the emotive issue of abortion as a bulwark against social change. It was intended to control the future, to project the power of conservative Catholicism forward into the distant decades. It was meant to act as an impassible boundary beyond which Ireland could never go. Instead, it served only to discredit the very ideology it was supposed to bolster. It caused great misery. It sustained a culture of shame and silence. It even killed some women. But it did all this, in the end, for nothing. Even from the point of view of those who most passionately believed in it, this reactionary project proved to be abortive.
What happened in Ireland after the constitutional coup of 1983 exposed the three great problems of legal bans on abortion. The first of these is bodily reality. Prohibition is as successful in this arena of human life as it has been for alcohol and drugs. It doesn’t diminish the number of pregnancies that women cannot or do not want to bring to term. In 1985, after the Eighth Amendment had passed, 3,888 Irish women were recorded as having abortions in Britain. By 1991 the number was 4,154; by 2001 it was 6,673. The numbers began to diminish somewhat thereafter, but only because Irish women were finding ways to procure abortion pills without leaving the country. If the purpose of abortion bans is to actually reduce the rate at which women terminate pregnancies, the Irish experience shows how utterly ineffectual they are. Some poor, vulnerable, or very young women and girls can be forced to carry babies they do not want, but a policy that depends for its success on female impoverishment and powerlessness is not easy to sustain in an open society.
The second problem highlighted by the Irish case is that, for the antiabortion project, absolutism is both imperative and impossible. The ideological core of the movement is the (relatively recent) Catholic theological dogma that the human person comes fully into existence at the precise moment of the fertilization of the ovum. From then on, the zygote has the same moral standing, and the same rights in law, as every other human being, especially its mother.
This belief may seem absurd to those who do not share it, but for those who do, it imposes a duty to be extreme. There is no acceptable moderate response to mass slaughter. Analogies with the Holocaust are commonplace in antiabortion literature: Rice, for example, maintained that the principle of allowing abortion if a child would be born with severe defects was “the same as that which underlay the Nazi extermination of the Jews.” These comparisons are, to those who assent to their validity, coercive—if you accept them, nuance and restraint are terrible moral failures. Even draconian laws are justified to prevent this mass extermination. Any shade of gray blurs the black-and-white vision on which the antiabortion argument rests.
The difficulty is that this necessary extremism is also, in a democracy, politically unsustainable. Even in Catholic Ireland in 1983, the antiabortion campaigners could not draft an absolutist ban on abortion in all circumstances. They conceded, with Rice’s approval, to a formula in which the Irish state would guarantee “the right to life of the unborn,” but with “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” This was extreme enough in itself—there was no exception even for rape or incest. But it was still fatal to the whole project. It sapped the force of absolutism. It meant that Irish courts would have to sanction abortions, albeit in the very limited circumstances where a mother was in danger of death.
The antiabortionists were blind to this contradiction because their beliefs are rooted ultimately not in law but in religious doctrine. Catholicism has a neat way out of the dilemma. If a doctor removes a fetus from a woman who has, for example, an ectopic pregnancy, this is OK because the termination of the pregnancy is not the primary intention. It is merely an indirect effect—which means that the abortion is not an abortion. This casuistry is fine for theologians, but it doesn’t work for judges or doctors.
Or, of course, for pregnant women or girls whose lives are in danger. In the Irish case, the conservative triumph of the Eighth Amendment began to melt away in 1992, when the Supreme Court was faced with the case of Miss X, a fourteen-year-old girl who had become pregnant as a result of rape and wished, with the support of her parents, to have an abortion in England. A lower court, at the urging of the Irish attorney general, had ruled that Miss X should be prevented from leaving Ireland—essentially incarcerated within the country. But the Supreme Court, having heard evidence that the child was suicidal, decided that her equal right to life meant that she could, after all, travel for an abortion. It turned out that the constitutional amendment, intended to ban all abortion forever, had in fact established a right to abortion in some very limited circumstances. The conservatives were left to rail at the effects of their own handiwork, but they could never find a textual formulation that would satisfactorily obliterate in law the right to life of the mother.
Revulsion at the treatment of Miss X also forced the Irish government to put forward further constitutional amendments, including one guaranteeing access to information on abortion services abroad and another assuring women of their right to travel out of the country to have an abortion. The conservatives felt unable to oppose these amendments. To do so they would have had to argue for pregnancy tests for women leaving Ireland and for the banning of magazines or newspapers that carried information about abortion. Yet by failing to insist on precisely these measures, they lost the integrity of their argument. If abortion is murder, such radical measures would be fully justified. If they are not justified, it is not murder. In Ireland—as is now happening in the US—the conservative moral order came to be a matter of location. We won’t stop you having an abortion (and thus killing a baby) so long as you do it outside our state. If conservatives shy away from the fiercely repressive measures necessary to enforce their ideological positions, they begin to seem cynical and hypocritical. If they do not balk at outright autocracy, they seem merely mad.
The third great problem that became evident in the Irish experience is that, while poor and marginalized girls and women are the primary sacrificial victims, some middle-class, well-educated women will also end up being killed for the cause of antiabortion righteousness. By their nature, antiabortion laws cannot be clear. They bury innately complex physical, social, and psychological realities in abstract phrases that can never be adequate to the multiplicity of circumstances in which pregnant women find themselves. In Ireland the once-and-for-all constitutional amendment of 1983 spawned five more constitutional referendums and half a dozen major cases in local and European courts. Buried within this thicket of argument were women’s bodies. In 2012 a young dentist, Savita Halappanavar, died of sepsis in Galway University Hospital. She was seventeen weeks pregnant and, even though she was having a miscarriage, medical staff were afraid to intervene until they were sure that the fetus had no heartbeat, lest they be accused of having carried out an abortion.
This was the last straw. In 2018 the Irish people voted overwhelmingly to excise the Eighth Amendment from the constitution. Attempts to ban abortion did not preserve holy Catholic Ireland as an island of sanctity in the deluge of immorality. They ultimately served, rather, to force the Irish to reject the ideological system that created so many cruel hypocrisies. Arguably, the great victory of Irish and American conservatives in 1983 actually hastened the demise of Catholic Ireland by making Catholicism seem heartless, fanatical, absurd, and misogynistic. Abortion is now legal in Ireland—the beacon of morality that was meant to shine back across the Atlantic at benighted America has been turned off.
It is, for the American religious right, no longer necessary. The same is true of the amendment to the US Constitution that Rice demanded in 1973. His aims have been achieved instead by a long, slow march through the institutions of law and by the weird alliance that religious reactionaries made with Trump. But even if Ireland no longer matters much to the history of American religious conservativism, it shows them their future. For what happened to the vicarious victory of the antiabortion fanatics in Ireland in 1983 will happen to their indigenous triumph in the US Supreme Court in 2022. They will cause girls and women to suffer. They will reduce female personhood to the same level as that of a zygote. They will spread shame and silence. They will kill some women by terrifying and confusing the doctors who should be treating them. But they will not change the necessity of abortion in women’s lives. They will not be able to enforce the coercive laws that their zealotry demands. And they will not find that the fulfillment of their long-held desire puts an end to the social change they so despise. We know in Ireland that banning abortion is a line in the sand only in the sense that, like all such lines, it gets washed away by the tides of life.