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  • Abortion, Gay Rights, and the National Gay Federation in Ireland, 1982–1983
  • Patrick McDonagh (bio)

The issue is about a woman's right to choose to control her own body and it's about your right as a gay man to control your body.

—Joni Crone, "Women's Right to Choose: Affiliation?"

In the period between 2015 and 2018, the Republic of Ireland held two seminal referendums: the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum and the 2018 referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment, which had placed a constitutional ban on abortion in 1983.1 Both referendums, which passed by large majorities, signaled the dramatic transformation that had taken place in the Republic of Ireland in the preceding years, allowing the country to leave behind the image of a socially conservative society dominated by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The 2015 same-sex marriage referendum was all the more remarkable considering that it was only in 1993 that the Republic of Ireland decriminalized sexual activity between males—the last country in the European Economic Community to do so.2 Speaking after the 2015 referendum, Enda Kenny, then Ireland's taoiseach (prime minister), declared that "today Ireland made history. . . . [W]ith today's Yes vote we have disclosed who we are—a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people."3 In a similar vein following the 2018 [End Page 1] referendum, Leo Varadkar, Ireland's first openly gay taoiseach, emphasized the historic nature of the vote, noting that "a quiet revolution has taken place and a great act of democracy a hundred years since women got the right to vote. Today, we as a people have spoken. And we say that we trust women, and we respect women and their decisions."4

Thirty-five years earlier, however, in 1983, the situation was profoundly different. In April 1983 the Irish Supreme Court, in a three-to-two ruling, following a case taken by David Norris, citing the "Christian nature of our state and on the grounds that the deliberate practice of homosexuality is morally wrong," ruled that the laws criminalizing sexual activity between males were not unconstitutional.5 In September of that same year Ireland's electorate voted overwhelmingly in favor of an amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Republic of Ireland's constitution). Coming into force on 7 October 1983, this Eighth Amendment meant that the Irish constitution enshrined (until 2018) "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 respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right."6

The decision to hold a referendum had been directly influenced by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) and the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), which had formed in 1980 and 1981, respectively. Working together, SPUC and PLAC campaigned for the introduction of a constitutional ban on abortion, fearing that the increasing liberalization of abortion laws in countries like England, the United States, France, and Denmark might also occur in the Republic of Ireland.7 Within three weeks of PLAC's formation it had secured the support of Charles Haughey, the leader of Fianna Fáil and then taoiseach, and Garrett Fitzgerald, the leader of Fine Gael, the main opposition party at that time, to hold a referendum.8 The speed with which PLAC was able [End Page 2] to secure this support demonstrated the considerable clout it had with the political class.

Tom Hesketh has noted that the 1983 referendum "strained relations between the churches to breaking point whilst posing dilemmas for each church individually; it divided deeply both Fine Gael and [the] Labour [Party] (Fine Gael and the Labour Party had formed a coalition government in December 1982 which lasted until March 1987)."9 Ireland's decision contrasted sharply to the laws pertaining to abortion in other Western societies, which, as noted previously, had moved in the direction of liberalizing their abortion laws since the 1960s.10 In 1967 Ireland's closest neighbor, England, for example, had not only decriminalized sexual activity between males aged twenty-one and over, as long as it occurred...


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