The large billboards facing the Irish public from alongside roadways and town centres are a stark reminder: “21,000 babies aborted since 2019, more than the population of Sligo. STOP ABORTING our FUTURE.” They are part of the Life Institute’s Time to Think campaign, confronting those who voted to do away with the 8th Amendment with the reality of what those votes have wrought. It has been four years since the Irish people removed constitutional protections for pre-born children and triggered a worldwide eruption of congratulations and celebration from progressive leaders, journalists, and abortion activists. Ireland’s pro-life movement was left reeling and grief-stricken.
In May of 2018, I joined the Save the 8th campaign with several colleagues in the leadup to the vote. I was impressed by the sheer dedication of the pro-life movement, and the more I spoke to various grassroots organizers and volunteers, the more I became aware that there was a fascinating story here not being told by the press. In almost every Western nation, pro-life movements sprung up in response to the legalization of abortion. In Ireland, however, a handful of prescient pro-life activists responded to Roe v. Wade by launching a campaign that resulted in a 1983 referendum that put the 8th Amendment into the Irish constitution. It was an unprecedented pre-emptive strike by pro-life activists, and it kept abortion out of Ireland for 35 years, saving—at a minimum—250,000 lives.
As Irish journalist Rosanna Cooney begrudgingly noted: “To forget the sophistication and efficacy of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, which orchestrated a ban on abortion in Ireland, is to forget one of the great political coups of the 20th century.”
I had the privilege of telling the story of one of Europe’s most successful social movements in my 2020 book Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement. A key reason for the Irish pro-life movement’s effectiveness is that they put boots on the ground with door-knocking and outreach (‘street sessions’) nearly every day in a country where abortion was already illegal. In response to constant pressure from activists to legalize abortion, a handful of young people led by Niamh Uí Bhriain and several others launched Youth Defence in response to the 1992 X case ruling which established a right to abortion if the woman’s life was at risk—including by suicide. Youth Defence became the gutsy vanguard of the movement, willing to engage in direct action and disrupt political conferences and settled consciences, a counter-revolutionary group of punks with a traditional twist.
For decades, influential pro-life lobbyists and frontline anti-abortion activists kept the issue at the forefront of Irish consciousness with both political pressure and relentless activism. It was not until the tragic 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar from septicemia, which was universally framed as a direct result of the 8th Amendment, that Middle Ireland (the broad centrist swathe of the population) was successfully persuaded that the 8th Amendment endangered women’s lives. The truth—that being denied an abortion had nothing to do with Savita’s death—was utterly lost in a global media firestorm. At long last, the abortion activists had a face—and Savita smiled down from nearly every telephone pole in Dublin during the leadup to the vote on May 25, 2018. The average Irish voter did not vote for abortion—they voted to save women like Savita. But what they got was abortion.
Walking to Trinity College to view the Book of Kells last month, I was startled to see Savita’s face once again peering down from a billboard, urging voters to action: “Savita: 10 Years On The March Goes On. Health. Equality. Bodily Autonomy.” The rally, advertised for October 29 in the Garden of Remembrance to the Dáil, is part of the abortion movement’s next push—to liberalize the regime that came into place in 2019 even further. The three-day waiting period is their primary target. As Life Institute has pointed out, 1 in 5 women may change their minds during this period, saving nearly 1,000 babies each year. Since legalization in January of 2019, there are roughly 128 abortions each week—and more than a school full of children are aborted each month. In the year prior to legalization, 2,879 women travelled to the UK for abortions, with roughly another 1,000 obtaining abortion pills. That rate has shot up over the past two years, and abortion campaigners are not finished using Savita’s tragic death to facilitate more feticide.
The pro-life movement is fighting back, and I was invited to speak at the Renewal Tour in October to discuss my book, Patriots. The original plan had been to launch the book at the Rally for Life in 2020—but then the global pandemic descended. Thus, people were thrilled to see each other again when we were finally able to gather in Dublin. The first stop featured a film screening of Tim Jackson’s documentary Ireland’s Fall: The Abortion Deception, which details how the forces of mainstream media, Big Tech, and politicians coalesced to suppress the pro-life message and persuade Middle Ireland to vote for abortion. It was shown at the Savoy Cinema (where most premieres are held), and the theatre was packed. I was a little awed to meet people whose careers I’d researched and written about extensively, such as John O’Reilly and Bernadette Bonar, two of the original masterminds of the 8th Amendment.
There were speeches by the Niamh Uí Bhriain, Ben Scallan of Gript Media, a right-leaning media outlet launched in the wake of the referendum in response to the media’s suppression of the pro-life message, and a representative of Gianna Care, which assists women during and after pregnancy. From Dublin we criss-crossed the country, with packed events in Cork, Donegal, and Castlebar. Speaker after speaker took the stage after the documentary screenings: Megan Scallan of Life Institute, who is working to reach the youth; Becky Kealy of the pro-life political party Aontú with TD Mattie McGrath in Cork; legendary football manager Mickey Harte in Donegal; veteran pro-life activist Tommy Horan in Mayo; and many others. Ireland’s pro-life movement suffered a devastating defeat, but they are rallying, dedicated to the legacy of defiance that is so uniquely Irish.
In my speech, I observed the strange symmetry between Ireland and America. Irish pro-life activists saw what was happening in the United States and moved to prevent a similar judicial decision in Ireland; nearly half a century later, the 8th Amendment is gone—but so is Roe v. Wade. The birth of Roe was a wake-up call to Irish pro-lifers, and resulted in an amendment that saved a quarter of a million lives. The death of Roe is also a wake-up call—and a reminder that battles lost do not mean that the war is over. There are other encouraging examples, too. Despite the protests in Poland after their top court ruled that aborting disabled babies was unconstitutional, a mere 22% of Poles support abortion on demand—and Poland has consistently become more pro-life since the fall of Communism. In 1992, 47% believed that abortion should be legal for financial reasons. By 2016, that number had fallen dramatically to 14%. It is possible to rebuild a culture of life once it has been lost.
In so many ways, the pro-life movement is engaged in that age-old battle between civilization and barbarism. In the National Museum of Ireland, I viewed the corpses of the ancient dead, some of them thought to be victims of ritual human sacrifice, preserved for over 2,000 years in the Irish bogs. Clonycavan Man, who died of axe blows to the head prior to disembowelment sometime between 392-201 BC, still has a wispy goatee clinging to his leathery brown chin, his long hair tied behind his head. Old Croghan Man, killed by a fatal stab wound to the chest between 362-175 BC, is missing his head—but his hands are eerily preserved, from his fingernails to his callouses. Gallagh Man, who was strangled to death with a garrotte between 400-200 BC, was found hunched on his left side between two wooden posts, naked but for a deerskin cape. These were the sorts of cruelties combatted by the first Christians to arrive on Irish shores, conquering hearts in the name of the God-man who was Himself sacrificed.
As we drove across Ireland from tour stop to tour stop, the spiritual geography of the land was evident everywhere. On the rain-drenched Dingle Peninsula we stopped at the 1300-year-old Gallarus Oratory, a tiny stone church of dry rubble masonry that was built, the pamphlet at the entrance told us, when “men understood God and his ways much better than they do now.” A short distance away is the 6th-century Reask Monastic Site, where ancient stone slabs were carved with crosses and “DNE,” standing for Dominie, Latin for O Lord. From the Rock of Cashel, seat of the kings of Munster from the 4th century to 1101 and now the home of the ruined but magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I could see the roofless remains of once-great abbeys, grey and solemn and teeming with ivy and ravens. It was here, legend has it, that Patrick came seeking the conversion of King Aenghus.
But even long before, the peoples of this land had their eyes on eternity. Newgrange is a passage tomb that historians say is 5,000 years old—more ancient than the Pyramids of Giza. The crown jewel of Ireland’s ancient east, the stone circular mound, 85 metres in diameter and 13 metres high, rises from the green of the Boyne Valley. What struck me was not the passage that holds the light of the winter solstice sun or even the mysterious circular carvings—it was something the tour guide said. This tomb or temple, she told us, was built by Stone Age farmers over generations—while they themselves lived in dingy huts and scraped an existence from the soil. The house of the dead and the temple of worship was more important than the homes of the living. We do not know what or who they worshipped here—only that they did. Everyone, in all places and at all times, has been fuelled by the need to worship.
Now, as the heat of the sexual revolution melts maternal bonds and scorches familial solidarity, many instead worship themselves at the dawn of a new pagan age. Many—but not all. In 2018, 723,632 Irish men and women went to the polls to vote for the children and for the future. They voted no to the resurrected ancient practices of human sacrifice; no to the sundering of solidarity between parents and children; no to cruelty cloaked in compassion. It was these men and women who came to hear the story of their movement and the story of what their decades of sacrifices had achieved in Dublin, Donegal, Cork, and Mayo; to hear politicians who had refused to vote for a national crime; to hear activists call them once again to the streets and doorsteps. On May 25, 2018, a great wickedness was unleashed in Ireland—but not by them. Their story deserves to be told, and I hope I have done it justice.