By Jonathon Van Maren
A couple of weeks ago, I finally got around to watching The 8th, an documentary following the abortion debate from the early days until the 2018 referendum campaign that saw the Irish people vote to remove protections for pre-born children. Although the film attempts a scattershot overview of all of Ireland’s alleged crimes against pregnant women (the most prominent of which is denying them the right to violently end pregnancy), the directors focus on veteran abortion campaigner Ailbhe Smyth and self-described “litter-activist” Andrea Horan, a nail bar owner who joined the campaign to repeal the 8th.
In many ways, The 8th does for the abortion movement what I attempted to do for the pro-life movement in my recent book Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement: It tries to give a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes. In fact, the film reveals what pro-life activists suspected—that the abortion campaigners really didn’t need to do a lot, and that the media and the politicians did their campaigning for them. There’s almost no new revelations in The 8th, and I suspect the film will only be interesting to those who are already invested in the Yes or No side of the 2018 referendum.
In one scene, Smyth and her fellow abortion activists discuss their research, which revealed that people distrusted not only the Church, but also politicians and feminist groups. People did, however, trust the medical professionals, which is why the Yes side leaned so heavily on allies like Dr. Peter Boylan (who has already written his own memoir, In the Shadow of the Eighth.) Anything a doctor said, no matter how untrue or deliberately evasive it was, would be effective.
For example, film shows abortion activists discussing the fact that the Irish people were not on board with their agenda—that is, abortion on demand. Health Minister Simon Harris’s legislation had a 12-week cut-off for abortion, a fact that proved unpopular whenever publicized. As such, the Yes side decided to focus relentlessly on the hard cases while avoiding the actual law completely. Doctors on TV brushed off questions from pro-lifers about the 12-week limit, saying that this limit was common to other countries—as if that were relevant or addressed any of the concerns.
In short, one strategist explained to the abortion activists: “Compassion and hard cases are the winning argument.” Middle Ireland was not persuaded by abortion, but could be persuaded to vote for repeal if they could be persuaded that the 8th Amendment was cruel. Smyth heartily agreed: “We stay absolutely with the hard cases,” she said.
The 8th doesn’t have a lot of drama to highlight, because the Yes campaign didn’t have to do the heavy lifting. With the limited door-knocking they did, face-to-face conversations in which they could plant doubt in the minds of voters about the 8th Amendment were important. It didn’t matter that Savita Halappanavar had not died because she was denied an abortion—it only mattered that voters could be persuaded that she might have. There was also door-to-door literature delivery—when I was dropping pamphlets in Dublin the week before the vote, the mailboxes were already stuffed with Yes material from both activists and politicians.
The discussions often featured uncertainty versus certainty. Those who wanted the 8th repealed were sure of what they wanted. The majority in Middle Ireland were not. They didn’t want Varadkar’s liberal abortion regime—those who were aware what the legislation contained, that is. But they didn’t want women dying because of the 8th, either. All the abortion activists had to do was convince them that the 8th had killed women and would kill women.
This, ultimately, was what persuaded people—not the protests with the white bonnets and blood-red Handmaid’s Tale dresses (which, to be fair, was the best-dressed some of them had ever been.) Time and again, abortion activists told Ireland that there were only two options: Abortions in Ireland, or abortions in the UK. The option presented by the pro-life movement—Love Them Both—was not even mentioned. Loving a child with a fetal abnormality, for example, was completely dismissed—and the line presented was that these conditions were “forcing people out of the country.” That parents would choose to kill such children was a foregone conclusion.
Confusingly, The 8th lingered on the subject of the baby graves at Tuam, a tragic story where children were found buried on the grounds of a former mother and baby home. Somehow, abortion activists felt that the story of babies who had died would make people more sympathetic to a cause championing the idea that babies can be killed. What happened at Tuam was, obviously, a tragedy. History is filled with mistakes and injustices. But to point to babies who were buried as a reason for legalizing the murder of babies who will not even receive a burial takes a peculiarly brazen and cynical moral relativism.
The documentary ended, predictably, with the wild celebrations at Dublin Castle after the results of the vote were announced. The abortion activists were awash with ecstasy; they hugged each other; Smyth broke down in tears. “The revolution doesn’t happen overnight!” she crowed, and there is no doubt that these folks believe they have miles to go before they sleep. A compassionate Ireland, to Smyth and her comrades, is one in which 13,243 babies have died by abortion thus far. There are no mass graves for these children, because abortion activists do not think they are worth even that. These children, to them, are garbage. Ireland’s old injustices have been replaced by new injustices—and the modern kill count will make the mistakes of the past pale in comparison. Old cruelties have nothing on modern ones.
Those who campaigned for abortion may have shed tears of happiness when they secured their victory, but it is a sad fact that abortion regimes bring pain and grief in untold measure. There will be many more tears in the years ahead, and they will not be happy ones.
Watch the trailer for Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement: