The Irish Lesson: Abortion Bans Won't Stop Abortion

tags: abortion, Ireland, Irish history

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.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books