The Irish referendum – a bleak day for human rights

justice-626461_1920The Irish referendum last Friday is being hailed as a great day for freedom, a key moment for the liberal consensus in creating a modern, progressive future. The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said: ‘Today we made history’ ‘A quiet revolution has taken place, a great act of democracy.’ The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said ‘What a moment for democracy and women’s rights.’

I’ve spent the weekend away, with a dying mobile phone whose twitter app kept crashing – it was a blessing to be spared the weekend on Twitter! Back home this morning I listened to Baroness Chakrabarti, Shadow Attorney General and leading human rights campaigner, speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme, berating the DUP in Northern Ireland for blocking a similar liberalisation of abortion. She did so in really striking terms, (which is why I have to blog this morning):

‘This is an issue of fundamental human rights, and in fact the situation in NI is currently putting the UK Government in breach of its international human rights obligations, so says the UN, so we’re calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties and then legislate without delay…..You can’t have democracy without fundamental human rights….’

This is Alice in Wonderland stuff. Quite extraordinary! Everyone is patting each other on the back, speaking of human rights being established at last, talking about our international obligations and so on, when no one seems to have noticed what the Irish referendum was all about.

It was about abolishing a fundamental human right that is currently written into the Irish constitution.

Apparently it is a great day for human rights to vote to abolish a human right.

The 8th amendment to the Irish constitution, passed back in 1983 by a coalition government where Mr Varadker’s party, Fine Gael, was the largest party. It enshrined in the Irish constitution the following provision:

‘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 respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’

This is a truly significant statement of human rights. It goes further than the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ The ECHR simply states ‘Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law’ without explaining whether the ‘everyone’ can include people who are currently in the womb. The Irish 8th amendment guarantees the right to life of both the unborn and the mother, in a carefully balanced and nuanced way. It should be treasured in Irish law for the many lives it has protected. Irish men and women are alive today who this amendment protected, ensuring that their mothers respected their right to life and brought them to birth.

On Friday the Irish voted to abolish that right. This is a solemn and dreadful day for human rights. Normally, legislatures vote to make abortion legally available. In this case there was a bigger obstacle, the guaranteed human right to life of the unborn. In all the abortion debates that have taken place around the world, I may be wrong but I think this may be an unprecedented decision – a nation that publicly votes to abolish an explicit human right.

I appeal to the #Together4Yes campaign to think again about what they are doing. You are abolishing a fundamental human right! I appeal to them to find their compassion for the unborn, and to celebrate the gift of human life.

I appeal to them to think about human rights not as something of purely individual choice and convenience, but as standards by which a community lives together, and the most fundamental of these is that we cherish the right to life of every member of society. A mother and her baby are a society, both gloriously and wonderfully made, the mother passing on the gift of life to her child, as it might be said ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.’ Nobody knows what potential that child can fulfil, even if it has downs syndrome, and the purpose of human rights legislation is to protect and cherish that potential, to allow and celebrate human flourishing.

In this debate democracy and human rights have been almost continually bracketed together. That is what is so worrying. Codified human rights established in a constitution are there to protect inalienable human rights from the ebb and flow of public opinion. But Friday’s vote demonstrates that in a democracy where there are no moral absolutes, human rights are continually in danger because there is no agreement about what are the fundamental human rights that no public vote should ever throw away.


Friday was a bleak day for human rights.

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