Abortion was just one front in a wider religious war


Fintan O’Toole provides some background on Ireland’s appalling “Pro-Life” amendment to its constitution.

The most successful single issue movement in the history of the State, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), was established in January 1981 by 13 organisations: the Congress of Catholic Secondary School Parents’ Associations; the Irish Catholic Doctors’ Guild; the Guild of Catholic Nurses; the Guild of Catholic Pharmacists; the Catholic Young Men’s Society; the St Thomas More Society; the Irish Pro-Life Movement; the National Association of the Ovulation Method (“natural” contraception endorsed by the Catholic church); the Council of Social Concern (COSC); the Irish Responsible Society; the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children; the St Joseph’s Young Priests Society (young Catholic priests, that is); and the Christian Brothers Schools Parents’ Federation. The initial meeting was chaired by the head of a 14th organisation that was immensely influential on the campaign behind the scenes, the secretive, all-male brotherhood the Order of the Knights of Columbanus.

It’s enough to make you want to throw up. Notice that at least two of those groups are not only Catholic but all-male. All-male Catholic groups stripping women of basic rights – not a good look.

These are the bodies that made Ireland unique in the democratic world in having a ban on abortion in its constitution. In spite of a great deal of revisionism, their sectarian character is obvious: 10 of these bodies were explicitly and exclusively Catholic. The other four were almost entirely made up of conservative Catholic activists. (By contrast, all Irish Protestant churches opposed the amendment.) For all of these groups, abortion was just one front in a wider religious war.

On Protestantism, on women, on secularism, on the whole notion and possibility of not taking orders from the Vatican.

A guy called John O’Reilly started it all going.

John O’Reilly explicitly regarded a successful anti-abortion amendment as a prelude to action against contraception and “illegitimacy”: “The campaign for a pro-life amendment would enjoy widespread support now and the success of the campaign would serve to halt the permissive tide in other areas.”

For O’Reilly “pro-life” was the opposite of “anti-life”, a term which incorporated the availability of contraception and (weirdly) the rising number of babies born out of wedlock.

Because the most important thing of all is to make sure that nobody ever ever ever just plain has sex for the fun of it. God no. It has to be made as rule-bound and joyless and like a prison sentence as it can possibly be. Except for priests, of course.

The Irish Responsible Society, of which five key PLAC leaders were members, was the Irish branch of the group led by the English right-wing Catholic activist Valerie Riches (now a papal dame). For Riches, the degeneration of society through sexual permissiveness was a conspiracy driven by International Planned Parenthood.

Sex! Sex sex sex! It’s dirty, it’s terrifying, it’s the swirling vortex of hell that will suck you in if you don’t work night and day to forbid everything you can think of.

The first action of her Irish followers was to campaign against a small State grant to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Its next campaign was against the removal of the stigma of illegitimacy from children born out of wedlock.

This is the ideology – sectarian, paranoid, apocalyptic – that gave us the eighth amendment. It was utterly dismissive of any qualifications to its absolutist views and saw all “sob stories” as liberal conspiracies.

Bernadette Bonar, a leading PLAC and Responsible Society figure, warned of pro-abortion conspirators turning up at a TD’s clinics: “seemingly respectable little women giving him sob stories about 12-year-olds being raped.”

Loretto Browne, also a prominent PLAC and Responsible Society leader, told me in 1982 that rape very seldom results in pregnancy because “men that go in for rape are usually not fertile, they tend to be impotent”.

Uh-huh. The body has a way of shutting that whole thing down.

These were the people who created the Irish abortion regime. Most of them are long gone from the public stage – COSC and the Irish Responsible Society no longer exist. Their world view is marginal. But their legacy abides for women not born when it was in its pomp.

Their worldview isn’t marginal in the US. I wish to hell it were.

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