[Editor’s Note: Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, First Things, The American Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Van Maren is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide. He spoke to Charles Camosy about Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland s Pro-Life Movement.]
Camosy: I must admit, knowing that the final chapter covered the loss of the 8th Amendment protecting equal justice under law for prenatal children under Irish law, a bit of hesitancy to get invested into a story which culminates in that tragic loss. Did you share any of that in making a decision to write this book? And what ultimately drove you to take on this project in the first place?
Van Maren: Interestingly, it was the loss of the 8th Amendment that drove me to research and tell this story. I was in Ireland for a few weeks prior to the 2018 abortion referendum, and the pro-lifers I met there crisscrossing the country, going door-to-door, and putting up with the contempt of the media and the betrayals of so many politicians were simply some of the best people I’ve met. And yet, the narrative of what happened started taking shape before the vote: That a movement of progressives and feminists saved Ireland from a handful of misogynist, medieval men and women driven to fanaticism by religion.
Like any pro-lifer, I’m used to narratives of that sort. But this time, it genuinely upset me. To see so many men and women who fought for decades and saved hundreds of thousands of lives—and then left everything on the field to save Ireland’s constitutional protection for the pre-born—slandered in this way was disgusting. These people fought for the children of others because they cared so deeply. I remember one elderly woman on the Life Canvass, moving slowly from door to door in Dublin. Someone told her that he’d be voting for repeal, and the woman said, in a trembling voice: “But what about the babies?” That’s why so many people took off work, skipped university classes, and poured their own time and money into the pro-life movement.
We in the pro-life movement rarely tell our own stories. As a result, our stories are told by those who slander us, hate us, and at the end of the day, do not understand our motivations. (Recent smear jobs include Norma McCorvey and Phyllis Schlafly.) I thought it would be a crying shame if the beautiful history of the Irish movement ended up being told by a handful of pro-choice journalists and abortion activists.
What lessons can the US, Canadian, and other pro-life movements around the world learn from the “glory days” of the Irish pro-life movement?
There are many answers to this question. First, the Irish movement was relentless. Keep in mind they were putting activists on the streets every day in a country where abortion was already illegal. They took nothing for granted, and they refused to be reactive. One of the reasons Ireland held on for so much longer than the rest of the West is that they responded to every threat as if it were existential, because it was.
The Irish movement has also given much to the international pro-life cause. For example, the Dublin Declaration, a document signed by over 1,000 medical professionals affirming that abortion is never necessary to address the health circumstances of the mother, is used by pro-lifers around the world in debate, on campus, and in street outreach. From embryonic stem cell research to difficult health circumstances, the Irish movement was always ready to present a compelling and coherent response to the deceits of the abortion industry, and to take those arguments to the streets and millions of doorsteps. They perfected the fusion of advertising, activism, and the distribution of essential information.
What lessons can such movements learn from the stinging defeat that the loss of the 8th Amendment represents?
To cite just one: That the media, the abortion industry, and the politicians will exploit any crisis—and any corpse, to put it crudely—to get abortion on demand. The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar was used as a blood libel against the pro-life movement despite the fact that every inquest and investigation proved that she died of septicemia, and that she did not need an abortion to save her life. That fact was buried. The false narrative that the 8th Amendment killed a woman—and would kill more—was relentlessly pounded into the consciousness of Middle Ireland. During the final week leading up to the referendum, abortion activists were simply hanging up photos of her face.
That story—the story of how the 8th was actually lost—also needed to be told.
One often hears folks say that the fall of the 8th can be directly connected to the fall of the Catholic Church more generally in Irish society. What’s your take on this?
It was definitely a significant factor, but can be somewhat overstated. Without Savita’s death, it is unlikely that the abortion activists would have been able to achieve repeal of the 8th, at least this time around. That said, the hatred and hostility of many young people towards the Catholic Church is very real and very vitriolic. I examine the impact of secularization and how scandals in the Catholic Church deeply damaged her moral standing in Ireland in the book. For example, many clergy did not speak up during the referendum for fear that their endorsement of the pro-life cause might accomplish the opposite of the intended effect.
As a person with 50 percent Irish heritage myself, I took great pride in being Irish and couldn’t wait to go back to visit. Now, however, I must admit feeling ashamed that a people with which I so closely identified could have done something like this. Any advice for folks like me? Do we have any reason for short- or medium-term hope that Ireland can work toward protecting and supporting both prenatal children and their mothers under Irish law?
You are not alone in this. In fact, the loss of the 8th Amendment triggered an identity crisis for many Irish pro-lifers, something I detail in the final chapters. That was a question that came up often: If Ireland is no longer pro-life, what does it mean to be Irish? It was that question that partially inspired the title to the book, Patriots. It has often been a minority fighting for a righteous cause, and the Irish have a tradition of this. For inspiration, the Irish need only to look to her own past—including the pro-life heroism I detail in my book.
In terms of what comes next, the Irish are now fighting a battle that resembles the fight in other nations. That said, keep in mind that 33 percent of voters cast their ballots to keep abortion illegal in all circumstances. That is a solid base to work from. I forget precisely where I read this quote, but after one referendum loss in another country, the spokesman for the losing side noted that there had been much support for their position, and that the battle would begin anew immediately. To paraphrase his words: “Let us start from 33 percent.” I have every confidence in the ingenuity and tenacity of the Irish movement.