Story of the 8th: how right-wing Catholic groups staged a remarkable political coup 1 year ago

Story of the 8th: how right-wing Catholic groups staged a remarkable political coup

In the early 1970s, a tanned, balding American priest known to some as 'the Apostle of Life' arrived in Ireland with a message to deliver.

Among the priest's belongings when he touched down in Ireland were a reel of film and a foetus in a jar.

The priest was the notorious pro-life advocate Father Paul Marx and his trip included a visit to Maynooth University where the 'Apostle of Life' gave a macabre lecture.

Before he delivered an anti-abortion talk to the students, Marx was told to "give them the worst you've got. Marx proceeded to play an instructional video on how to perform abortions.

Within a few minutes the lights had to be turned on as students were screaming. Four people were carried out having fainted and one nun ran from the room with her hand over her mouth, holding back her vomit.

This was going to be a long and dirty war.

The story of how the Eighth Amendment came to be placed in the constitution is part of Irish history, yet relatively little is known of the campaign or the people that put it there. Not since the Civil War in the 1920s has anything been as politically and socially divisive as the abortion campaign of 1983.

The Eighth Amendment was a remarkable feat by a small group of Catholic right-wing conservatives, but their story has largely been lost to the archives and cemeteries where many of Ireland’s first pro-life campaigners now lie.

To forget the sophistication and efficacy of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), which orchestrated a constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland, is to forget one of the great political coups of the 20th century.

Within two weeks of publicly launching their campaign in Buswells Hotel on 27 April 1981, PLAC had written commitments from then Taoiseach Charles Haughey, and the leader of the opposition, Garret Fitzgerald, to support a referendum on abortion.

Fear of God

Without reference to Dáil or public debate, and after just one meeting with a small delegation from PLAC, Haughey and Fitzgerald committed their parties.

So how did one lobby group push politicians into supporting a referendum that was not being called for by the public or required by the courts?

How did PLAC put the “fear of God” into every politician in Leinster House that they would lose their seat if they did not declare themselves pro-life?

How did one small group push through an amendment so ambiguously worded that there would need to be three more referendums to ensure it didn’t intern pregnant women in Ireland or constitutionally affirm that the life of a suicidal woman was inferior to that of the foetus inside her?

The answers lie in the formation of the pro-life movement in Ireland, the years of planning, the network of spies and international allies, and the institutional support they possessed at every level of Irish society.

Long before a fully formed PLAC delegation, comprised of gynaecologists, doctors and lawyers, met with Fitzgerald and Haughey, the first anti-abortion foot soldiers were travelling the country.

Knights of Columbanus

At the invitation of John O’Reilly, the prominent anti-abortion orators Father Paul Marx and Charles Rice were invited to Ireland for the specific purposes of giving pro-life talks. O’Reilly has since been credited as being one of the most influential members of the pro-life cohort, instrumental in the bringing together of different right-wing Catholic groups under the umbrella of PLAC.

Many have speculated that the Knights of Columbanus have played a prominent role in the pro-life movement. The Knights were a patriarchal group of Catholic lay people, who were perceived to have influence in Irish society, their members and activities remain enigmatic today.

Their role in the abortion referendum has since been denied by John O’Reilly. "The most the Knights ever did was say a prayer the night before polling day,” he says. "We used the Knights headquarters as a place to have meetings and sometimes to drink."

But the Knights, and their headquarters in Ely Place, Dublin, functioned as the connecting link between many of the Catholic groups which would come together to form PLAC.

The original aim of many of these groups was to clamp down on a general perceived permissiveness in society. Such were the beginnings of the pro-life movement in Ireland.

SPUC anti-abortion march, Dublin, 1982. Photo by Derek Speirs.


In the late 1970s, one medical clinic in South County Dublin did a roaring trade in pencils. But, as with so many things in Ireland at the time, this was not what it appeared.

The pencils were colour-coded and depending on the particular pencil a customer bought, they would receive a certain contraceptive. Condoms were one colour, caps another and so on.

But attitudes in Ireland were changing in the 1970s and the influence of the UK and America on Ireland was felt in fashion, music and in one other area that made members of Irish conservative society anxious: sexual liberation.

The sale of contraception was illegal in Ireland  but imaginative ways such as colour-coded pencils were employed to circumnavigate the law.

This kind of subterfuge made protected sex possible for the few not the many, but change was coming. An international trend for the liberalisation of reproductive rights was happening and Ireland was not immune to its influences.

The 1967 Act in the UK, which greatly liberalised the accessibility of abortions in Britain, set an international precedent. In Finland, Italy, Sweden and Austria abortion laws were soon liberalised following the British example.

The influence of the US courts was also to be felt in Ireland, In 1973 the US Supreme Court ruled that a ban on abortion was unconstitutional. There was a fear that this judgement could set a legal precedent for the introduction of abortion to Ireland by the judiciary.

“She had a baby three months old…she had a penknife long and sharp…she stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart…”

For many Catholic conservatives the introduction of contraception to Ireland was paving the way to figurative hell: to abortion being legalised in Ireland.

SPUC anti-abortion march, 1982. Photo by Derek Speirs.

A fire was lit under all those who feared the legalisation of contraception in Ireland would prove, as Archbishop John Charles McQuaid wrote in his pastoral letter of 1971, "to be gravely damaging to morality, private and public and would remain a curse upon our country”.

The fire came in the guise of Mary McGee. McGee, a young married woman, was living in a mobile home with her husband and four infant children and was faced with the prospect of death or crippling paralysis if she became pregnant again.

In 1973, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that Mary McGee’s constitutional right to marital privacy had been infringed by the state when it had confiscated spermicidal jelly she had ordered from England on the advice of her doctor.

As a result of this ruling by the Supreme Court, the government realised the legal sale of contraceptives was an inevitable conclusion as the ban was unconstitutional. The Catholic groups that spurned “artificial” contraception felt the first flushes of fear that the Irish courts would proceed to follow the American courts and ultimately rule that a ban on abortion was unconstitutional.

Crisis pregnancy

The 1967 Act in the UK opportunity opened up options for women to terminate their pregnancy abroad and through the 1970s, the numbers of women going to England for abortions kept rising.
In 1971, 578 women travelled to the UK for an abortion. In 1979, it jumped to 2804 and it was 3603 in 1981. Those numbers only recognise the women who gave an Irish address.

 Anti-Amendment protest, Dublin Airport, 1983. Photo by Derek Speirs.

For those that couldn’t afford to travel the social stigma and economic hardship of being an unmarried mother led to desperate attempts to induce miscarriages. The Irish Pregnancy Counselling Centre that opened in the late 1970s reported women coming to them who had already tried jumping off tables, throwing themselves down stairs, ingesting herbal concoctions, or taking a knitting needle to their vagina.

For those that did carry their pregnancy to term, state institutionalisation in a Magdalene Laundry or Mother and Baby home was a possibility.

And incidents of infanticide in Ireland in the first half of the 20th century speak of a time of secrecy, tragedy and shame in childbirth. A folk song popularised by The Dubliners in the 1960s, Weila Waile, sings of a country with such a past: “She had a baby three months old…she had a penknife long and sharp…she stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart”.

Despite all of the difficulties and hardship that awaited women in crisis pregnancy situations, the pro-life lobby refused to acknowledge that conditions in Ireland could or should be improved for women and their children.

Women's Right to Choose 

As the 1970s came to a close two distinct groups began to emerge on the abortion issue in Ireland. An anti-abortion lobby network which eventually came under the group heading of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) and the Women’s Right to Choose (RTC) movement. On 5 May 1979, Ireland had its first ever Women’s RTC march while on the same day an anti-abortion demo was held outside the GPO.

Women's Right to Choose protest, Dublin, 1979. Photo by Derek Speirs

In February 1980, the first Women’s RTC meeting was held in Trinity College Dublin. No more than 30 people were in the room. Those present were largely students - they had no funding, no backing and were essentially holding a small meeting on a college campus.

The meeting was reported in the newspapers at the time, and the RTC has since been credited as a catalyst for the PLAC campaign and the activities of the multiple organisations operating under its umbrella.

The Women’s RTC group was the only group in the country speaking out in favour of abortion rights and its resources were predominantly spent on keeping the Irish Pregnancy Counselling Centre in operation.

The pro-life activities of the time however were markedly different and an indication of the influence, affluence and fiscal forces of those involved.

The Foot Soldiers

In July 1980, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), a UK organisation which had formed after the UK liberalised its abortion laws, arrived in Ireland for a weekend meeting in a Dublin hotel. They another meeting the following Monday in a Dublin hospital.

Just two months later the first Irish branch of SPUC held its initial public meetings in Finglas and Dundrum. It was advertised locally as “The Case Against Abortion”.

By December 1980, SPUC were holding demonstrations around the country and, facilitated by the Catholic Church, they were travelling to schools, showing visuals of abortion and creating a network of willing campaigners in every parish.

SPUC was given time during school hours to address secondary school children. And, as one biology teacher noted at the time, they gave information on reproduction that was in direct contradiction of biological facts.

SPUC’s formula for their meetings was adapted from the UK. They would show a film entitled An Everyday Miracle, which showed the development of the child in the womb to the background of dramatic music. Audiences heard that “just eight weeks after conception this new life has assumed a recognisably human appearance. After 10 weeks, it was “looking more and more like a fully-formed baby”.

Following the showing of the film, SPUC presented a slideshow under the heading “Death before Life”. These slides showed the different ways by which a foetus could be removed from its womb, “because” as a speaker for SPUC explained at one meeting, “a mother has to decide which method she will use to kill her unborn child”.

The slides included the remains of a foetus after it had been suctioned from a woman’s womb and a black plastic bag filled with foetuses.

By 1982 SPUC had visited over 250 schools around Ireland, had recruited over 4000 members and on at least one occasion spoken from the church pulpit itself.

SPUC anti-abortion march, Dublin, 1981. Photo by Derek Speirs.

SPUC’s tactics were considered grotesque by some, but their involvement and mass membership would be crucial to the amendment campaign when the time came for them to be recruited to PLAC.

"Arrogant, paranoid and sex-obsessed"

Another event which would prove foundational to PLAC was The World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life, held at Trinity College Dublin in September 1980. The event was organised by John Bonnar, a professor of gynaecology in Ireland, who would go on to become a prominent pro-life supporter.

The event was attended by over 200 doctors from around the world. The issues of abortion and contraception were introduced to almost every session including those on the care of the dying and on doctors responsibilities to prisoners.  “Arrogant, paranoid and sex-obsessed” is how Irish Times journalist David Nowlan described the conference.

It was at this conference, according to Magill journalist Pat Brennan, that Irish doctors were led to believe that there was strong pressure from international agencies such as International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to influence abortion laws in countries such as Ireland.

This allegation was rebutted entirely by IPPF. However the conspiracy theory of international pro-abortion agencies exerting influence over Ireland’s abortion laws became one of the cornerstones of PLAC and remains a core belief of some pro-life campaigners, who believe abortion was popularised for the purposes of population control.

Medical ethics

John Bonnar, who organised the conference in Trinity, became a key supporter of the PLAC campaign.

In 1977 he called for the establishment of ethics committees in all hospitals, specifically to “design and monitor hospital policies in contraception, sterilisation and other questions of ethical or moral concern".

When eventually these committees were consulted on the wording of a constitutional amendment that places the life of a woman as equal to that of the unborn, they endorsed it fully. They did not ask for any further guidelines or specifications as to how doctors should proceed when faced with a choice between saving the life of the mother or refusing to treat her as it could infringe upon the foetus’s constitutional right to life.

The ambiguous nature of the Eighth Amendment has predictably led to years of confusion in Irish Catholic hospitals. Barry Desmond, who was Minister for Health from 1982-1987 and opposed the amendment, recalls the horror he felt when he was told that a woman who had cancer of the cervix had been denied treatment in an Irish hospital because it would harm the foetus. The woman died in agony and the foetus didn’t survive.

"A stuffy old bunch"

At a meeting in Blackrock, Co Dublin, Dr Julia Vaughan, a former nun, gynaecologist and one time assistant master of Holles Street maternity hospital, emerged onto the anti-abortion scene. Vaughan would become the frontwoman for PLAC, her objective was to fight the introduction of abortion to Ireland so the country could "become a beacon" and "turn the tide in the western world".

She was approved by other senior figures in the movement who felt it would be better to have a woman at the forefront of the campaign rather than men, especially “senior academic gynaecologists who look like a stuffy old bunch,” as quoted in Emily O' Reilly's book on the pro-life movement, Masterminds of the Right.

Father Paul Marx was also present at the Blackrock meeting. The links between Ireland and America during the PLAC campaign would continue to strengthen visibly as three congressmen from the US would visit Ireland to speak at anti-abortion meetings.
Directly after the conference in Trinity, there was a merging of right-wing conservative social issues groups with like-minded members of the medical profession.

“I remember it clear as day,” says Bernadette Bonar, “The five of us met in a Dublin pub. We knew we had to do something to stop abortion coming into the county. We had lost the fight against contraception, and one thing was certain we couldn’t afford to lose this one.”

What Bonar describes is a meeting of pro-life waters. Sitting around one table were the people who would come to be responsible for the successful insertion of the Eighth Amendment into the Irish constitution.

 Bernadette Bonar, Dublin, 1982. Photo by Derek Speirs


The core of the PLAC campaign was established before Christmas of 1980. No more than a dozen people formed this core base and among them were members of the Irish Catholic Doctors Guild, The Responsible Society and Council of Social Concern (COSC). These three groups all shared the aim of copper-fastening Ireland as a country with constitutional protection for the unborn and preserving it as a Catholic society. These groups all had links to the Knights of Columbanus.

The pro-life group initially favoured a grassroots petition campaign, but PLAC’s chairperson Dr Julia Vaughan rejected the idea and instead pushed for a tactic of immediately engaging with the most senior politicians in the country.

In April 1981, scarcely a year since the first Women’s Right to Choose meeting, PLAC launched their campaign.

Perfect timing

Three days after their launch PLAC had a separate meetings with Garett Fitzgerald and Charles Haughey. Their timing was perfect.
Haughey’s minority government was just clinging onto power and a general election was widely predicted, so there was expansive potential for PLAC to play one party off another on such a divisive and emotive issue.

Fitzgerald immediately agreed to supporting a referendum on abortion, his position was particularly vulnerable as a few weeks previous a young Vice President of Fine Gael, Maria Stack, had been quoted in the media as supporting abortion in restricted circumstances. Fitzgerald had faced intense pressure from his party and wider forces to denounce Stack.

“Garret Fitzgerald was under huge pressure from the church, he couldn’t help me publicly even if he wanted to privately. Basically he became powerless on the whole abortion issue. The church, the senior people in law and medicine and in the professions. They wielded their power to make sure he and I toed the line,”says Maria Stack.

In Fitzgerald’s autobiography, he recalls his own reasoning for agreeing to support a referendum as being the recognition that abortion “was one of the few issues on which there was a united view”.

Pro-life protest, Dublin, 1982. Photo by Derek Speirs

Haughey took longer to give his full commitment to PLAC, but on 14 May 1981 Haughey wrote a letter to PLAC conveying his full support and the support of the government for a constitutional amendment.

“Haughey was completely cynical about abortion,” says Barry Desmond a Labour TD, “Haughey didn’t care about abortion, all he cared about was getting back into power."

A product of the Catholic Church

A general election was called soon after the two leaders agreed to holding a referendum on abortion and both parties included a commitment to such effect in their election manifestos.

Fitzgerald won the election, and his true sentiments on a constitutional ban on abortion would soon become apparent.
Fitzgerald’s vision for Ireland did not include enshrining Catholic values in the constitution.

When PLAC first launched it proposed the wording of the amendment should be as follows: “The state recognises the absolute right to life of every unborn child from conception and accordingly guarantees to respect and protect such right by law”.

Donnycarney Church, Dublin, 1983. Photo by Derek Speirs.

After it was highlighted that this wording would forbid even the two types of abortion permitted by the Catholic Church-when the pregnancy is ectopic, meaning outside of the womb, and when the woman has cancer of the uterus- it was rapidly changed.
PLAC’s revised amendment permitted abortion only in the cases that the Catholic Church allowed for terminations.


Neither Haughey nor Fitzgerald were keen to be seen to support an amendment that also apparently supported the embedding of a Catholic ethos into the constitution.  Fitzgerald’s broader message was one of unity between Protestants and Catholics. He had written at the time about the need to assure unionists that the law-making process in the Irish state would not be subject to the demands of the Catholic lobby. But this message was severely undermined by his capitulation to PLAC.

Fitzgerald tried to recant, to pull back from holding the referendum. He faced an adverse reaction from Young Fine Gael who opposed the amendment and from his own attorney general Peter Sutherland who advised that the wording of the amendment was “ambiguous” and “unsatisfactory". Sutherland felt the wording would “lead inevitably to confusion and uncertainty”.

Papers released thirty years later showed that Sutherland was concerned the insertion of the amendment would result in a dangerous situation whereby a doctor, faced with the dilemma of saving the life of the mother through a termination, but also having to regard the equal right to life of the foetus, would come to the “only lawful conclusion…that he could do nothing, absolutely nothing which infringed on either right”.

As a result of Sutherland’s concerns, a response to PLAC was drafted: “The Taoiseach has indicated that the government is unalterably opposed to the legalisation of abortion and is committed to taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the right to life is protected under the constitution". This response abdicated the responsibility of the government to hold a referendum on abortion.

But the response was never sent and Fitzgerald’s government soon fell over a tough budget where Fine Gael unwisely tried to introduce VAT on children’s shoes.

Anti-amendment protest, Dublin, 1982. Photo by Derek Speirs.


Haughey won the general election, returned to government and immediately announced his government’s intention to hold a referendum on abortion.

Haughey proceeded with the referendum plans regardless of mounting opposition. His Attorney General, Patrick Connolly, advised that cases of rape and incest and fatal foetal abnormality should not be considered extenuating circumstances. This decision would come to haunt the Irish government in the form of the X case in 1992.

At a cabinet meeting of the Fianna Fail government on the 2nd November, 1982, the text of the Eighth Amendment was finally agreed: "The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to protect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws, to defend and vindicate that right”. These 43 words would become the most well known, the most contentious and the most divisive in the Constitution.

But the Bill lapsed when Haughey’s government collapsed just two days later after a double-murderer was found in the Dalkey home of Patrick Connolly. The events were later surmised as GUBU - grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented - by Conor Cruise O’ Brien.

And with that blow to Fianna Fáil, Fitzgerald was soon back in the Taoiseach’s office with a Labour coalition.

Friends everywhere

There had been three general elections in the space of 18 months, but neither PLAC nor their demands for a referendum had gone away. Fitzgerald made a last push to alter the amendment, but he was foiled by a source at a meeting held to discuss this alteration who phoned Bernadette Bonar with the exact wording of Fitzgerald’s revised amendment.

“We had friends everywhere,” says Bernadette Bonar who took the phone call from the source. "We had a tremendous network who would risk everything to help us. We went to the media, and it was in the papers the next day that the pro-life amendment group would not accept any changes to the wording.”.

For PLAC the campaign was now like pushing an open door. “We went round the country and people were so welcoming, we never had to pay for a night in a hotel,”says Bernadette Bonar. Bonar travelled the country with PLAC and SPUC, giving talks and holding meetings.

Anti-abortion protest, Leinster House, Dublin, 1981. Photo by Derek Speirs.

“It was very easy to sell it to the people, because a lot of people didn’t even know we had a constitution and they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to legalise the killing of innocent babies, it was the easiest thing in the world to sell,” says Bonar.

“The key supporters of a politician were important to get to,” she says. "We would go the local organisations, the county councillors, the chairman and secretary of branches, they were the people instrumental in getting a TD elected. We had conveyors in every constituency that would put pressure on these people.”

Bonar’s means of garnering political support were regimented. Her brother was Tom O’Donnell, a TD at the time, and in the run up to the launch of PLAC she secured promises from seven other TDs that they would do anything to get the amendment through government.

While PLAC had a network of friends and supporters in every parish and high office, the Anti-Amendment Campaign (AAC) was underfunded and didn’t exist on a national level.

"Wife-swapping sodomites"

The AAC were isolated, marginalised and frequently abused by PLAC. They found it difficult to get locations to hold meetings in. Businesses were fearful of being seen to support AAC and capitulated to anonymous demands to cancel their reservations of meeting rooms.

On one occasion an AAC meeting was cancelled in The Black Sheep pub in Dublin, and the group held their meeting in the car-park instead to the shouts of “wife-swapping sodomites” and “whores” from pro-life protestors who had shown up.

The Black Sheep pub, protest by anti-amendment supporters. Photo by Derek Speirs.

McDonagh was also given donations in private towards the campaign by business people who wanted to remain anonymous. There was tangible fear in the small towns and the cities of Ireland of the consequences of supporting AAC.

AAC meetings were often disrupted by supporters of pro-life supporters who would turn up solely to interrupt speakers and shout across the women speaking from the crowds.

People were fearful of supporting AAC. "Every politician in the country had the fear of God put into them by pro-life campaign,” says Barry Desmond. Desmond was resolutely against the amendment and received targeted abuse in the form of widely distributed pamphlets discrediting him personally, while graphic anti-abortion literature from the US, the UK and Ireland was posted through his letterbox.

"Dangerous to women"

The Anti-Amendment Campaign was a reactionary move by activists, many of whom were involved in the campaigns to make contraception legal and widely accessible, but they were entirely unprepared to tackle a well-funded, efficient, and sophisticated PLAC that had already been putting in years of groundwork in parishes around the country.

While the PLAC message was clear, the referendum was to protect the unborn child and prevent abortion being legalised by stealth in Ireland, the AAC’s message was more oblique.

The AAC made the point that the referendum would cost an estimated £850,000 at a time when one third of the Irish population was living on or below the poverty line.

They never publicly came out to say they were pro-choice or pro-abortion, but argued against it on the grounds that the amendment was unnecessary, legally unsound and dangerous to women.

Dick Spring the leader of the Labour Party who was anti-amendment, said the amendment would be a “document enshrining an attitude to women which verges on contempt”.

In contrast, PLAC’s message was simple - don’t murder babies, abortion is murder, vote yes to the referendum.

After years of campaigning, planning and lobbying, the date for the referendum was set for 7 September 1983. Garret Fitzgerald’s government, the Labour Party and the protestant churches campaigned against the amendment.

Anti-Amendment protest, Dublin, 1982. Photo by Derek Speirs.

Fitzgerald, who two years previously had given his full an unequivocal support to a constitutional ban on abortion, had been out-manoeuvred by PLAC, a group of Catholic lay people who were “hatching their plan” as Bernadette Bonar put it, for years.

Determined not to allow the amendment go down in history as his or Fine Gael’s mistake, Fitzgerald issued a statement: “To pass an amendment to the constitution that would…condemn to death women whose lives are now saved by such operations carried out in accordance with medical ethics and theology of all of our churches, would be an unforgivable act for which the Fine Gael Party will certainly not take responsibility”.

"At this point we knew we had lost"

The referendum campaign itself was reasonably short. The date on which the country would voted was announced six weeks beforehand but the war had already been won.

AAC canvassers faced steely receptions from doors they knocked on. One canvasser in the Navan area, Seamus McDonagh, remembers rocks being hurled at his head as he turned his back to walk away from a door. “People didn’t want their neighbours to think they’d even been talking to you,” says McDonagh. “Even after a day spent canvassing people in the pub would call us murderers and baby-killers”.

In the final weeks, AAC launched a last gasp leaflet campaign; “If you don’t know, vote no” was their message. The confusion around the abortion referendum amongst the voting public was tangible.

“At this point we knew we had lost,” says Eddie Conlon, the national organiser for AAC. “It was a completely uneven campaign.”
PLAC received support from the Catholic Church and Fianna Fáil, not only during the campaign but on polling day itself.

In Castlerea, Roscommon alone there was more than 30 amendment supporters covering four polling stations and hundreds of cars had volunteered to make sure “Yes” voters could travel on the day.

In contrast, the AAC had given up campaigning in Roscommon early on as they received almost no support at all. And that was just one county. A similar situation was to be seen all over rural Ireland.

“Every church controlled institution was empty that day,” says Seamus McDonagh, recalling polling day. There was a bus strike on but the church hired big buses to go around to every college, hospital, mental institution in the country and bring people to vote. “Nuns would lead patients off the buses and go into the polling booths with them, some of these people were not capable of voting, but there they were,” remembers McDonagh.

 Polling Station for abortion referendum, Clane, Kildare, 1983. Photo by Derek Speirs.

On the day, there was a 53.6% turnout. 841,223 people voted 'yes' and 416,136 said 'no'. The Irish people had approved inserting the Eighth Amendment into the constitution by a margin of two to one.


For PLAC, it was a remarkable achievement. This small group had manipulated a government into holding a referendum on something that was already illegal. They had pressured politicians, business people and lay people all over the country and successfully altered a constitution to include an amendment that would prove to be legally and medically unsound.

But buried within the polling data were some insights which brought hope to AAC campaigners. On the morning after the result was announced,  Senator Michael D Higgins, whose constituency was Galway West, pointed out that on Inishere the amendment was passed by one vote-34 to 33, In Maam Cross it was defeated by one vote and in Tooreen, it was defeated 17 to 22. In all of the areas where AAC actually managed to get people out on to the doorsteps, the influence of the Church was counter balanced and diluted by the anti-amendment presence.

But the AAC as a whole was “demoralised” says Eddie Conlon of the defeat. "We didn't give up until the end but there was just a sense the hill was too big."

The impact of the Eighth Amendment was felt in a myriad of ways. British telephone directories were removed from Irish libraries, copies of Elle and Cosmopolitan magazine were impounded in Dublin airport, and crisis pregnancy agencies were forced to stop giving out information on abortion clinics.

What became apparent was that no one understood what the Eighth Amendment really meant and over the next 35 years, it would remain one of the most divisive issues in Irish society.

The predictions of the Anti-Amendment Campaign came true. Doctors have their hands constitutionally tied in terms of treating pregnant women. The numbers of women travelling overseas for abortions has continued to increase.

Ireland has not become a “beacon” for the world or changed the tides of public morality. Instead Ireland is seen as a dark place for bodily autonomy. It has been recognised as such by international human rights organisations, the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee and, most importantly, by the thousands of women and men who have campaigned and marched for a Repeal of the Eighth Amendment since its insertion.