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A Path Forward for Life: Reflections on Ireland's Abortion Referendum

It’s been four days since the results of Ireland’s referendum on the 8th Amendment were released. It’s been four days of mourning and sadness and grief. I shared my original thoughts on the Rehumanize International Facebook page -- a brief, but forward-looking assessment.

“Today, we mourn over Ireland with the millions of people worldwide whose commitment to human rights does not exclude the smallest and most defenseless members of our human family: the preborn. Ireland has voted to disregard the intrinsic human dignity of every human being not yet born. Ireland has elected not to protect the inherent human right of every single child who has not yet been born to live free from violence. We mourn the losses that will come, the tiny human beings who will be lost, the parents who will be harmed, the children who will lose siblings... all to abortion. In our mourning though, we do not give in to despair. We let our anger at injustice spur us on to action.

We commit ourselves to continuing to build a world where such violence is both illegal and unthinkable. We commit ourselves to compassion, to human dignity, to justice. We commit ourselves to creating a human-centered culture that seeks to honor human dignity instead of discarding human beings.

We have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do. Our stance for human rights, our commitment to nonviolence - consistent as it may be - isn't popular (yet!)...

So, let's get to work."

After some time to reflect, I wanted to offer some other thoughts and musings that have crossed my mind in the days since.

When I looked at the statistics from the exit polls, it was clear that my generation had overwhelmingly voted "Yes", in favor of abortion. (Those between the ages of 18-34 voted between 83-87% for "Yes".) I was a little taken aback. It doesn't take complicated mathematics to understand that this was the generation whose rights were protected by the 8th Amendment. It struck me as irony; it struck me as a profound point of privilege that born humans have, that we have the power to vote to deprive the smallest and most defenseless humans, not yet born, of the protection of their inherent right to live free from violence.

Some polling points to the idea that perhaps the "No" campaign would have performed better had they not stayed committed to consistently standing for the rights of all children, from conception. This polling demonstrates ableism in a willingness of (often able-bodied) adults to allow abortion for disability of the child. The polling pointed to support for the allowance of abortion in the cases where the child was conceived in sexual violence, demonstrating a misplaced compassion for victims of such violence and an unwillingness to see the child who was conceived as yet another human being vulnerable to the continued to cycle of oppression. Some pro-life voices declare that exceptions are "practical" or "necessary" for winning elections. That we should learn from the "No" campaign's so-called "mistake" of being consistent. But, as someone who embraces a Consistent Life Ethic, I think it's abundantly clear that such exceptions violate the inherent dignity of those "left behind". A child with disabilities, or a child conceived in rape is just as human and just as worthy of protection as those who are able-bodied and conceived through a consensual act. When we push for exceptions, we undermine our philosophical foundation that says that every human being has inherent dignity and worth, and a movement cannot stand for long on such a shaky foundation.

What I have learned from Ireland's "No" campaign has been caught in short glimpses. I saw that inauthenticity and inconsistency can wound a movement for decades, as I saw the "Yes" campaign tie the pro-life cause to the burdensome baggage of the scandal and abuse of the Catholic Church in Ireland. If the Church did not have such a history of neglecting a human-centered philosophy, I do not think the "Yes" campaign would have thrived as they did. This points to a need I have seen in the pro-life movement (even here in the States): we must be authentic, we must be consistent, we must be human-centered. I also saw a hopeful glimmer: several pro-life student groups helped to release several videos reaching out to their peers who identify with or support the LGBT+ movement, encouraging them to continue to support equality by voting to keep the Life Equality Amendment. This was so encouraging to me, as I saw these young people acknowledge that, in order to end abortion, we will need people from every background to embrace the pro-life position. One final observation that I made was the sheer amount of comments I saw on social media and on articles that referenced Ireland’s treatment of those who violate their laws prohibiting abortion. Ireland’s “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act of 2013” included in Section 22 a penalty of fine or imprisonment (not to exceed 14 years) for those who are pronounced guilty of intentionally destroying an unborn human life. This retributive model of punishment was cited as a reason for voting “Yes” amongst many people with whom I have interacted online, and amongst many of those with whom my friends in Ireland interacted leading up to the vote. As we seek to bring an end to the violent act of abortion, perhaps we can learn from this response and seek to build a justice model that is centered on our shared human dignity, regardless of circumstances.

All in all, I'm not sure if there's a "quick fix" to the problem of abortion. Even in Ireland, a country with lower maternal mortality than the U.K. (where abortion on demand is legal up to 24 weeks, with some caveats), misinformation reigned and abortion was touted and pushed as a way to keep pregnant people safe. If we look at the statistics, we can see that this was not a referendum that was passed for the safety of those facing difficult pregnancies: Ireland was one of the safest places in the world to be pregnant. As sad as it may be, I believe this referendum passed because we live in a global culture that accepts violence as a solution to "crisis". We have a lot of work to do -- to educate, to engage in discourse, to get our communities active in the effort to create a culture of peace and a culture of life.

One thing that perhaps is being lost in the discourse on the win of the "Yes" campaign is the reign of consumerism and capitalism and the cultural utilitarianism that comes along with such market forces and how those forces influence support of abortion. We live in this world where the wombless cisgender male body is treated as normative, where those of us with wombs are made to feel as though we must be just like them in order to be useful, to be employable, to succeed. It is a deep-seated cultural misogyny, that is almost too subtle for us to parse. For, if this is normative, then menstruation is disgusting and to be avoi