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.