Reflections On The Vote In Ireland

When the votes were counted, it was a landslide. Nearly 70% of Irish voters rejected their government’s total ban on abortion.

The Irish electorate understood something too many Americans fail to grasp: the issue is not abortion. The issue is the proper role of government.

There are certain decisions that governments in free societies should not be empowered to make. Anti-choice activists should understand that a government with the power to decide that women may not abort is a government with the power to decide that they must. (Future lawmakers might conclude that controlling population growth requires such measures. Don’t believe it? Look at China.)

According to news reports, the vote in Ireland was influenced by widespread recognition that the decision women face is complicated– a woman who has been raped, a woman who has eight children she is struggling to feed, a woman carrying a fetus certain to die within hours of birth, or a woman whose health will be compromised by another pregnancy–have to weigh very different, and difficult, concerns. Taking the position that there is only and always one “correct” choice–and that the government gets to make and enforce it — flies in the face of human experience. It also defies human compassion.

I’d like to think the vote in Ireland was also influenced by recognition that–despite posters showing bloody fetuses and constant references to embryos as “babies”–  framing the issue in that way is dishonest. The question is not whether to abort a fetus or carry it to term. The question is: who should have the right to make that decision?

Those who crafted America’s Bill of Rights understood that the principle at the center of human rights is respect for individual moral autonomy. Handing government the power to prescribe citizens’ moral “dos and don’ts” is the antithesis of genuine liberty.  If those in positions of power and authority can prescribe your life choices, and punish any deviation from officially sanctioned conduct, you are a subject, not a citizen–and you definitely are not exercising moral choice.

I keep returning to the wisdom of what has been dubbed the “libertarian principle.” Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–their own telos–so long as they do not harm the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal liberty to others. That principle undergirds the U.S. Bill of Rights, and its example has been persuasive world-wide.

I realize that some people would confer “personhood” on a fertilized egg and would equate destruction of that egg with the murder of a human being. I am not one of those people. I am equally well aware that the argument about when human life begins is an intractable one. Those who oppose abortion should be free to make their case to women facing these difficult decisions, and of course women who oppose abortions must remain free not to have them.

But in a country where there is a demonstrable lack of consensus on the issue, a country in which different religions have very different theological positions about the moral propriety of terminating a pregnancy, laws requiring all citizens to obey the religious tenets of one segment of the population are both unenforceable and illegitimate.

The Irish don’t have our Bill of Rights, our religious diversity, or our particular legal history. But they clearly understood the importance of limiting the power of the state to force women to give birth . Last week, they voted to return responsibility for moral decision-making to the individuals who must exercise that responsibility and live with the consequences.

The vote was a rare bit of sanity in an increasingly autocratic world.


  1. A government that has the power to say one may NOT have a procedure,
    would also have the power to say one MUST have a procedure.

  2. Well put…spot on!

    The Koch’s must struggle with this topic frequently. We want “less government” except in those areas where we want government’s power absolute.

    This must trigger a conscious battle which is extinguished by the “win at any cost” justification. 😉

  3. “The Irish electorate understood something too many Americans fail to grasp: the issue is not abortion. The issue is the proper role of government.”

    Think Hobby Lobby. Think Pence’s RFRA. Think NFL disallowing players the right to “take a knee”. All of these issues involve government interference directly or indirectly at national and state levels. There was a time here in Indiana when mentally incompetent women could be surgically sterilized with the permission of a family member. At that time, women requesting or needing sterilization for serious health issues could rarely find a doctor to perform the surgery. In a strange turnaround (another personal issue); in 1970 a local surgeon was sued for performing the surgery on one specific mental patient in Central State Hospital at the request of her parents. In 1970 I was 34 years old, had five children and serious “female problems” making it dangerous for another pregnancy but could not find a surgeon to accept me as a patient. I contacted the infamous surgeon who was being sued and received the necessary surgery. But…I still needed the approval of my husband with his signature on a legal document.

    Government involvement here is moving back to those dark ages for girls and women; maybe we should seek assistance from the large Irish population in this country. We obviously need help from someone, somewhere here.

  4. The muddle of Irish politics is perhaps not unlike the USA:

    Varadkar told the Dáil on Tuesday that the Irish government wanted to legislate for abortion in the country as quickly as possible. But he said it should not be rushed because some people did not accept the referendum result and may legally challenge the legislation. Varadkar said it was likely to be January before parliament would be able to give full effect to the referendum decision.

  5. Until enough of us demand that male bodies also be legislated I just don’t see this awful issue going away.

    I have several ideas for severe punishment for men that would most certainly create upheaval within the religious halls of those who believe they have the right to govern women’s bodies.

  6. If you speak to many pro-birthers, they will eventually say that if a woman doesn’t want a baby, she should keep her legs closed. Having a baby is the “punishment” for having sex. My stock response is that any man who holds these beliefs should keep his pants zipped up, and if he can’t, he should face the same difficulties that women face – interrupted education and career, poverty, etc. There isn’t much chance that could get very far in a legislature.

  7. Also for consideration in this issue is that any restrictions disportionately affect poor & low income women. As has been observed many time, politicians and the corporate shills they work for can easily procure abortions for their mistresses and other women who fall for their pandering. Those who cannot afford to travel to places where abortions are provided are left holding the baby blankets.

    Once again, I also want to know, if they are so “pro-birth” why are Mike Pence and his ilk so “anti-decent life”? I keep thinking they are trying to create a work force that is underpaid, undereducated and too hungry and sick to complain to serve the corporate world. How demonic is that?? By their deeds shall ye know them.

  8. It’s more than just how far government can reach into our lives. In the abortion issue, created by churches that shouldn’t have ANY say in government, it’s also about the lingering control of women by men – yet another church-sponsored activity.

    Even the Irish with a profound connection to Catholicism made the intellectual leap that our so-called conservatives are unable or unwilling to make. We seem to be stuck with this broken record forever.

  9. Of course many authoritarian personalities, thinking what their entertainment media tells them to, sincerely believe that they should think as they are told because it’s the side of freedom, whereas “liberals” want to impose their “feelings” on others.

    As long as the electorate has such minds besotted with entertainment media, democracy is threatened.

    The media teaches that only “free markets” make stuff and create jobs, but the people who buy that unconsidered seem not to believe that “free minds” and democracy are the only reliable sources of freedom.

  10. Another maxim might be ” don’t make laws that won’t be followed, or that you can’t enforce”. Women had abortions before it was legal. They filled hospital beds. One of the facts considered when abortion was made legal was how many hospital beds it would free up. Legal abortion has saved the lives of many women

  11. What we are talking about here is the mythical right of men to make decisions on women’s health and lifestyle issues, the church’s ability to brainwash those men into adding their names to the “I-believe-in-poppycock” list, and the politicians’ ability to manipulate those intellectually challenged males’ misconceptions to win votes. This has not changed since before the time of Hammurabi, nor will it any time soon. Sheila is right that the issue is “the proper role of government,” but if pursuing an improper role of government secures an election, some politicians will always head in that direction. The conversation around guns proves that point, as does Trump’s vacuous ranting about immigration, despite his predilection for marrying immigrants.

    There is more wisdom in Sheila’s brief article than in the New Testament and the Quran combined, and it is better written. If you care about the next life more than you do this one, then religion matters and government doesn’t. If you care more about this life than the hypothetical next one, then government matters and religion doesn’t.

  12. The real issue isn’t even being debated, as Sheila points out. The Irish without our Constitution did a better job than we are doing with our Constitution. Pro choice addresses the real issue; pro life (or pro death for desperate women with Grand Pianos and coat hangers) does not.

  13. Terry,

    Your piece of wisdom AND Sheila’s blog, today, explain so much more about us than just the abortion “issue”. They say: “We aren’t as clever as we think we are, because we still imagine that some divine intervention will save us from our own inability to govern ourselves.”

    It’s all B.S., of course, that we cling to churches and the “hypothetical” next life. Ridiculous.

    Thanks for the elegant summary.

  14. Despite this vote, anti-choice activists will start doing in Ireland what they’re doing here: making up rules about mandatory counseling, waiting periods, creating unnecessary regulations about the types of facilities to perform the procedure, regulations about the physician having privileges at certain hospitals (which will be denied), and so forth. There will need to be laws protecting patients from hecklers and those blocking the door to facilities. Anything to get their way. They honestly can’t see the issue as whether the government should have any say-so in reproductive rights.

    As others pointed out, if the government does have a voice and if it can prevent an abortion, it also could require one, as China did for many years. Now, there’s such a shortage of women in China (due to preference for male children, who have an obligation to support their parents in their old age because China has no social safety net), women in places like Korea and other Asian countries are being kidnapped and brought to China to be brides.

  15. Nancy on May 30, 2018 at 7:58 am:
    “Until enough of us demand that male bodies also be legislated I just don’t see this awful issue going away.
    “I have several ideas for severe punishment for men that would most certainly create upheaval within the religious halls of those who believe they have the right to govern women’s bodies.”

    Nancy, just get legislation introduced in Mike Pence’s Indiana making masturbation a high crime or misdemeanor. Include funding for detection. It’s called “The Sin of Onan”; Rev. Pence would refer you to Genesis 38:8-30 and tell you the proposed legislation would get traction among his fellow GOP Christians.

    That would be a ‘shot heard round the world’ louder than RFRA. They just might quit targeting women. VOTE in November and in 2020.

  16. OMG – I was thinking more along the line of castration for any man who impregnates a woman who did not wish to be impregnated.
    If women are forced into a lifetime sentence, then those men should also suffer a lifetime sentence.

  17. There is irrefutable PRECEDENT against counting a fertilized egg as a living person: Even Christ counted His days as a living person from His day of birth, not from the day of His conception. Even the Catholic church counts its Pope’s days as a living person from each Pope’s day of birth, not from the day of the Pope’s conception. Even Supreme Court judges – all of them – count their days as living persons from the day of their respective birth, not from their day of Conception.

  18. Nancy – Click here to find out what may not be known about the “morning after pill”:
    *It’s affordable
    *It does not abort a fetus
    *It’s not surgical
    *It does not result in permanent sterility
    *It’s not “coitus interruptus”
    Seems to me a responsible partnership knows or can learn what to do the morning after including STD prevention

    It’s affordable

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