The Irish exception

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 policy making with a liberalized modern economy and the encouragement of female independence and advancement.

This combination is widely assumed to be impossible.