Opinion | Jon O’Brien

Catholic Ireland says, ‘Yes, we trust women’

A woman breaks down in tears as the results of the Irish referendum are announced in Dublin on May 26.
A woman breaks down in tears as the results of the Irish referendum are announced in Dublin on May 26.Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Today I could not be prouder of my home country of Ireland and its momentous vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution banning abortion. This is a historic step for the rights and dignity of Irish women. And a historic step for Catholic Ireland.

I grew up in Drimnagh, a working-class neighborhood of Dublin — a place where the heavy hand of tradition and religion was felt strongly. I saw families working every day to keep mouths fed; women struggling without options to control when, how, and whether to have children; parents keeping hush about topics like sex and sexuality. It built a resolve in me to speak out — I became an activist for the reproductive rights of women.


As a lifelong Catholic, I sought to give voice to the vast majority of Catholics who disagree with the church hierarchy on the reproductive rights of women. In Ireland, that hierarchy has played a pivotal role in politics, as the struggle for freedom was inextricably linked with Ireland’s Catholic identity. From the birth of the republic, the Irish government elevated the Catholic hierarchy as “the guardian of the faith” of the people and proved willing to use the state’s power to protect “Catholic moral values.” From this context arose the Eighth Amendment, backed in 1983 by the powerful force of the Catholic bishops’ lobby.

Over the past decades, however, Irish Catholics have questioned the role of the church in the secular state. And they have evolved in their thinking about a woman’s right to choose. A litany of tragic situations that cost women their lives brought into question the morality of the Eighth Amendment. Now with this vote, in a country where 85 percent of people still identify as Catholic, it is clear Irish Catholics trust women with their religion, in spite of the views of the Catholic hierarchy. It is clear Catholics can be and are in favor of abortion rights.


In a time when we can easily get swept up into being cynical about the power of the people in a democracy, this popular vote was inspiring. In spite of some attempts to manipulate facts and present false narratives, voters were able to sift through the noise and make informed decisions. It began with a citizens assembly, representing a cross section of society, which heard testimonies, deliberated the issues, and made recommendations to the government. People were given the space for thoughtful debate to consider the ethical consequences of keeping or revoking the abortion law.

When the referendum was announced, campaigners from both sides went across Ireland to state their case to fellow citizens on the direction the country should take. People of all ages knocked on doors and talked with family members over the dinner table. Men turned up to support repeal, understanding that this vote would have an impact on all Irish citizens. People of all ages, rural and urban, voted yes. The secrecy and stigma over abortion was lifted. Irish Catholics had unprecedented conversations about their faith and their values. It was a campaign that ignited all elements of society, a model for how to engage in civic life.

Today, Ireland joins fellow Catholic-majority countries like Spain and Portugal that have reconciled their faith and their abortion-rights positions. And it stands as a beacon for other Catholic-majority countries to do what is right by their women. As women in countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua continue to languish in jails under draconian abortion laws, the Irish vote shows that the Catholic faith cannot and should not stand in the way of the rights of women, but rather reaffirms their freedom as moral agents over their bodies and their lives. It sends out a signal to policy makers the world over to reform and repeal unjust abortion laws.


The Irish campaigners made a deeply emotional case for “yes” as a vote for compassion, care, and social justice. And Irish Catholics agreed that we must trust women, not punish them. Hopefully, more Catholics will see Ireland’s example as an affirmation of our duty to stand by women.

Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice.