Victoria White takes issue with an RTÉ News report on the referendum result, specifically with the assertion that the Eighth Amendment was “the brainchild of Catholic lay activists”. She says “this makes me so angry I find it hard to stay lucid,” an assertion which is confirmed by a reading of her column.
I would recommend that Ms White read Tom Hesketh’s 1990 book, The Second Partitioning of Ireland. Written from a pro-amendment perspective, it is considered the definitive text on the 1983 referendum. Hesketh says the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) was established in 1981 by 13 organisations: the Irish Pro-Life Movement; the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children; 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 National Association of the Ovulation Method; the Council of Social Concern; the Irish Responsible Society; the St Joseph’s Young Priests Society; and the Christian Brothers Schools Parents’ Federation.
Their first meeting was chaired by the head of a 14th organisation: the secretive, men-only Order of the Knights of Columbanus. That meeting was convened by John O’Reilly. Hesketh describes O’Reilly as “perhaps the main instigator of PLAC”. O’Reilly had spoken of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment as far back as the early 1970s, and in 1973 he got his daughters (nine and 10) to pose as adults and write to the Irish Family Planning Association, enclosing money and asking for condoms and spermicide. O’Reilly then sought, successfully, for criminal charges to be brought against IFPA.
John O’Reilly was obsessed with contraception and with ‘illegitimacy’, predicting: “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 and his conservative Catholic groups in 1981, their hope was that abortion would serve as a wedge issue, an easy win, and a bulwark against calls for social changes far more likely than the legalisation of abortion, principal among them the legalisation of divorce, the liberalisation of contraception, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. In time, O’Reilly and his fellow Holy Warriors would lose every battle in their crusade, but their Eighth Amendment caused 35 years of misery, pain and hypocrisy.
Ms White says the Eighth Amendment was not the work of the Catholic Church but rather that of the political system. She’s right, in that it was Charles Haughey, and then Garret FitzgGrald and Frank Cluskey, who bowed down to PLAC and called the 1983 referendum which gave us the Eighth Amendment, but PLAC was indeed made up of Catholic lay activists and it had the enthusiastic backing of the Catholic hierarchy.
The Eighth Amendment was a 35-year monument to a shameful time when supine politicians allowed fanatical Catholic fundamentalists to hijack our constitution, and we are well shot of it.