When we think about the liberal bastions of the world there are several countries that tend to come to mind, including countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark. It is very rare that someone names Ireland, a country almost synonymous with Catholic values, as a part of a list of socially liberal countries. However, Ireland has been making leaps forward in matters of inclusivity and human rights in the past few years. In a world where right-wing populism seems to be coming from every corner, maybe we should look to Ireland as a model for our path forward.
On May 25 the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment to their constitution detailing the country’s strict restrictions on abortion. The Eighth Amendment was added to the Irish Constitution in 1983 after a referendum vote. This amendment was painted as equal protection of the right to life for mother and baby and prohibited abortion in most cases. Some of the few exceptions that allowed for abortion under this law included danger to the physical or mental health of the mother, rape and fatal health issues for the fetus. It isn’t surprising that a country with an over 78 percent Catholic population had such strict laws about abortion. It is, however, surprising that this same country voted with a 66 percent majority to repeal the Eighth Amendment and subsequent ban on abortion.
This massive step forward in women’s rights issues for Ireland is less surprising when looking back at the last couple of years in Ireland. In 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to vote for the legalization of same-sex marriage by referendum, by 62 percent. Less than a month later, Ireland elected Leo Varadkar, an openly gay man, as the prime minister. Varadkar was also Ireland’s youngest prime minister in history and half Indian. All this progress, followed by last week’s decision to lift the ban on abortion, makes it clear: Ireland is not being left in the past any longer.
Much of this positive change comes during a time of overwhelming negativity in the world. Great Britain voted to exit the European Union in 2016 by a majority of 52 percent following a long campaign of isolationism and xenophobia. Less than a year later, France faced an intense election season between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Though Macron won in a landslide with 66 percent of the vote, Le Pen still managed to run in the primary with an extremist conservative agenda. This all happening in conjunction with the United States’ experiment with right-wing populists and nationalism with the election of Trump.
The world often seems to be slipping back in time when it comes to seemingly outdated laws and policies. At the beginning of May, Iowa approved the strictest abortion law in the country, making abortion nearly impossible once a fetal heartbeat has been detected. Meanwhile, on May 29 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the dispute over a 2015 law from Arkansas that made pill-induced abortions illegal. These policies come from a government led by politicians like Vice President Pence, who is known for his anti-abortion agenda [COPY: stance? Agenda is a pretty charged word esp. in this context]. In 2016 Pence signed a bill as the governor of Indiana that would severely limit women’s access to abortion, even in cases where the child would be born with disabilities. This decision was overturned in April by a federal appeals court, but still shows us exactly what our country’s second-in-command believes.
Ireland seems to be on an upswing right now and is making big strides in a short amount of time that will hopefully continue. However, it is important to remember how quickly that can change. Many of us thought that the United States might have been in a similar place when Barack Obama was elected as our first Black president or when gay marriage was legalized nationally. Unfortunately, directly following those few years of progress came the election of President Trump and a rise in open racism and misogyny.
Ireland is not perfect and still has a long way to go in issues of equality, particularly when it comes to issues of race and disability. However, in a world that can often feel like it’s falling apart, it’s reassuring to know that progress is still being made in a different corner of the world.