The Irish Exception

Posted May 19, 2018 11:51 a.m. EDT

There’s a cliché that the politics of Ireland have a way of lagging 30 or so years behind the Western times. The island nation’s version of the American 1960s, for instance, only really arrived in earnest in the 1990s, when divorce was finally legalized and the sexual revolution and secularization began to reshape Irish life in earnest.

Likewise in our own era, when much of Europe is being reshaped by populist revolts against the continent’s establishment, Irish politics still partakes more of the comfortable consensus of the 1990s, with a two-party duopoly that hugs the center, an intelligentsia in thrall to banal progressive optimism, and a friendly (or, in the wake of the financial crisis, supine) attitude toward the European Union’s technocrats.

If the cliché holds, Ireland will vote “Yes” next Friday on a ballot measure that would overturn the Eighth Amendment to its Constitution, and allow the government to legalize abortion well beyond narrow cases involving threats to the mother’s life.

The Eighth was passed in 1983, in response to the legalization of abortion elsewhere in the West — a conservative Irish exception to a general liberalizing trend. To repeal it in our own populist moment would be likewise exceptional: It would vindicate the island’s political and cultural establishment (from the leaders of both major parties to the members of U2) and bring Ireland into alignment with the general secular-liberal consensus — even as elsewhere that consensus is under sudden strain and threat.

At the same time, it would put an end to an all-but-unique experiment in Western public policy: an attempt to combine explicitly pro-life laws and generally pro-family policymaking with a liberalized modern economy and the encouragement of female independence and advancement.

This combination is widely assumed to be impossible. Female equality depends on abortion rights, the common pro-choice argument goes, and the post-1960s achievements of women in the professional arena are impossible without it. Likewise female health, since abortion restrictions are said to lead inexorably to countless illegal-abortion-related deaths. The choice may not be quite as simple as Roe v. Wade or the Republic of Gilead, but that dichotomy isn’t all that far wrong.

Some pro-life conservatives make their own versions of this kind of all-or-nothing argument — claiming that serious abortion opponents must reject feminism entirely, suggesting that legal contraception makes legal abortion inevitable, implying that you can’t really make pro-life laws or pro-family policy without a counterrevolution that essentially repeals the 1960s and 1970s (and perhaps even abolishes the welfare state).

But the Irish experience challenges all these assumptions. On the one hand, it demonstrates the unsurprising truth that pro-life laws reduce abortion rates. Irish women do obtain abortions, traveling to the United Kingdom or using chemical abortifacients. But even an expansive estimate for the Irish abortion rate places it lower than most comparable European countries — and at about a third the rate of England and less than half of the United States.

This low abortion rate coexists with other indicators that social conservatives tend to cheer: one of the highest birthrates of any European country, at 1.92 births per woman compared to the 1.58 fertility rate for the European Union as a whole; a low out-of-wedlock birthrate compared with the United Kingdom and other Western European nations; the lowest divorce rate in Western Europe. But it also coexists, those same conservatives should note, with considerable public spending in direct support of parents — considerably more than the officially pro-life and pro-family political party in the United States tends to support.

Then if you turn to the arenas where the pro-choice vision assumes that anti-abortion laws prod a society toward Gilead, you see ... a normal-seeming and sometimes more-feminist-than-average Western country. Ireland’s maternal mortality rates are consistently low, not high, relative to its neighbors and similar countries. It has a female work force participation rate slightly below the Western European norm, but it has around the same share of women in management as Switzerland or Norway or Belgium, and the World Economic Forum’s latest “gender gap” assessment placed Ireland eighth-best in the world in terms of achieving social and economic parity between the sexes.

In sum, with its restrictive abortion laws, generous family policy and otherwise modern economy, Ireland seems to have achieved or maintained some notable pro-life and pro-family goals without compromising women’s health or female opportunities relative to countries with abortion on demand. By being “behind the times” in some ways and more up-the-minute in others, the island’s experience suggests possibilities outside the normal lines of feminist-versus-social conservative, right-versus-left debate.

This is not an achievement to lightly throw away — and indeed, the Irish may still defy expectations and “catch up,” as it were, to this era’s anti-establishment, anti-center-left mood by voting to keep the Eighth instead.

But however they vote Friday, the Irish experience up till now will remain an example of how history’s direction is never morally straightforward, and how sometimes in what seems like anachronism there may be a model for a better society than ours.

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