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The abortion referendum: Voting for Ireland’s soul

Pro-choice demonstrators pose next to statue of Suffragist Millicent Fawcett in London, UK on May 5, 2018. The marches come just weeks ahead of a referendum in Ireland on the eighth amendment. Ireland goes to the polls on May 25. They will be asked whether they want to retain the eighth amendment of the constitution which gives equal rights to the mother and her unborn child. The current law, introduced in 1983, does not allow for abortions in cases of rape, incest or foetal abnormality. (Photo by Alex Cavendish/NurPhoto/Sipa USA) - Credit: SIPA USA/PA Images

The country’s close-call referendum on abortion will reveal much about a changing nation, says Jason Walsh

This month the hoardings and walls of buildings in Dublin, usually home to advertisements for mobile phones, drinks and car insurance, are more akin to Havana street scenes. It is political slogans, not commerce, that vie for attention.

Between them, the groups ‘Together For Yes’ and ‘Save the 8th’ have sought to take over Ireland’s public spaces as the country prepares to make its decision on an issue that goes to the core of the Irish soul. On May 25, the country goes to the polls in a referendum on whether or not to legalise abortion, which is currently forbidden by the Irish constitution.

Irish law requires a plebiscite on all constitutional changes, hence the round of public votes on EU treaties in the 2000s. In fact, it was also by referendum abortion was outlawed. In 1983 the eighth amendment to the constitution was passed by popular vote making provision for ‘the right to life of the unborn… with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother’.

Since then no lawmaker has been able to propose legalising abortion without going to the people. Prior to 1983, abortion had not been permitted in Ireland anyway, outlawed under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, a law inherited from the UK prior to Irish independence, but the eighth amendment copper-fastened the ban. Divisive at the time, the amendment was an attempt to outlaw abortion forever, and ensure that no parliament could simply change the law. It worked – up to a point.

Even in 1983 the country was deeply divided (the vote was two-to-one), and in the years that followed those divisions have only grown more intense. Although it was still a devoutly Catholic country in 1983, Ireland had begun to undergo sweeping social changes which meant the church was no longer quite the focal point of society it once was. Today, one more boom and bust cycle down the road and with the church wracked by sexual abuse scandals, Ireland resembles its European neighbours more than it does its past self.

Social modernisation was slow to come to Ireland, but when it arrived it soon gathered pace. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993; in 1995 a referendum narrowly legalised divorce; civil partnerships for same-sex couples were recognised in 2010; in 2015, gender recognition by means of self-declaration alone was made law, and, also in 2015 a referendum made provision for same-sex marriage.

Perhaps for both sides, though particularly for the pro-choice activists, abortion is the final battle between Ireland’s Catholic past and modern, liberal social values. This time, though, few expect a thoroughgoing victory, as was the case with the same-sex marriage referendum (62% to 37%). But as abortion is never far from the surface in Irish political debate this referendum has been a long time coming.

Many believe it is long overdue: campaigners say Irish women already have abortions; it’s just they have them in Britain. UK Department of Health figures for 2016 show 3,265 women with addresses in the Republic of Ireland obtained abortions in Britain that year.

Statistics for those carried out in the Republic of Ireland itself are unknown, but in 2013 the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act permitted terminations in extremely limited circumstances; specifically if a woman’s life is threatened by pregnancy, including by suicide, if a panel of psychiatrists judges the threat to be real. It also prescribed a jail term of 14 years for procuring or performing an abortion under false claims. Given the existence of the eighth amendment, the Act could go no further, but even this limited change to the law did not drop from the sky.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act passed shortly after a national scandal that put abortion back on the legislative agenda: on October 28, 2012, 31-year old dentist Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital, suffering cardiac arrest due to a case of septicaemia during pregnancy. Halappanavar’s attending medical team declined to terminate her pregnancy, with one of the consultants telling a later inquiry: ‘Under Irish law, if there’s no evidence of risk to the life of the mother, our hands are tied so long as there’s a foetal heart’.

The tribunal ruled that Halappanavar died due to ‘medical misadventure’. The outcry was immense and immediate, with thousands taking to the streets of Dublin. From then the battle was set, though a clash over abortion was inevitable in a county that has long, Janus-like, faced both in the direction of traditional Catholic values and modern liberalism.

‘It’s a recognition of changes that have already taken place,’ says Ailbhe Smyth, co-director of the campaign group Together For Yes, which is arguing for Ireland to legalise abortions.

‘It is certainly about putting behind us a past that is definitely past. It’s about saying: ‘That’s another country, that’s history.’ For those of us who were there in 1983, it has that sense of being a changed country,’ she adds.

John McGuirk, spokesman for Save the 8th, a campaign group opposed to legalising abortion, is keenly aware that Ireland’s relationship with Catholicism is central to how discussion is playing out. ‘We are still in the midst of a period of reaction against the church,’ he says.

‘There is no way this proposal would be as liberal as this were that not the case. I think that’s a significant factor here. No country has ever democratically jumped this far on the issue [and] there’s been hardly any discussion of the implications of that.’

The final result remains hard to predict, he believes. ‘I imagine it will go one of two ways: either it will be a clear ‘yes’ victory, or a ‘no’. I don’t see a close ‘yes’ victory as likely [because] there are people out there who are undecided and genuinely wrestling with the issue. I think there may also be a lower turnout than people are expecting. Some people may just sit it out.’

The finely-balanced outcome suggests there are two ways of looking at the Irish vote. Is the country simply the last in Europe to catch the liberal tide, or – if ‘no’ are successful – is it in the vanguard of a more socially conservative, reactionary mood sweeping the continent? Ireland has one of the strictest abortion regimes in Europe, with only Malta’s outright ban being more restrictive, but some countries are seeing tentative moves against abortion.

Since 1993, Poland has outlawed abortion except where a woman’s life is threatened, the pregnancy is a result of incest or rape, or when the foetus cannot survive. And even this regime is under pressure: a citizens’ initiative in 2016 calling for an almost total ban gathered almost half a million signatures, but was scuppered by mass mobilisations. This year, though, Poland’s conservative government has put the issue back on the table, with a proposal to outlaw abortion even in the limited circumstances now allowed.

In the UK, meanwhile, there has long been debate about reducing the period during a pregnancy when abortion is permitted. First mooted in 2008 by MPs including Conservative Nadine Dorries, a former gynaecological nurse, the issue has not quite gone away despite a defeat in parliament that year: in 2012, secretary of state for health Jeremy Hunt said he backed plans to reduce the term limit to 12 weeks. However, a 2017 vote was won by MPs calling for the decriminalisation of abortion, which is still technically forbidden. British abortion law is not itself particularly liberal, but it has been interpreted liberally, allowing abortion up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy with the requirement for medical reasons becoming a pro forma matter.

In Ireland the debate continues to rage – and the stakes could scarcely be higher, with both sides seeing it as a battle for the soul of the nation that will not come around again any time soon. The taoiseach Leo Varadkar has ruled out a second referendum.

Varadkar, a medical doctor, previously described himself as ‘pro-life’, but has campaigned in favour of repealing the ban and said he would support abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.

The debate has not run along party political lines, though something of an urban-rural divide is discernible, as is one between the young and the old. A poll held this month showed 51% of voters in Dublin favour repealing the anti-abortion amendment, whereas Ireland’s most rural constituency, Connacht-Ulster, has only 37% in favour. It also revealed that 56% of under-35s were in favour of repeal, versus only a third of those aged 55 and over. A not insignificant 22% of those polled remained undecided and, arguably, it is this cohort who will, in the end, make the decision.

Such divisions will not heal easily. The Irish might be more used to referendums than the British, but there are few issues quite as visceral as abortion.

‘It has always been divisive; it will always be divisive. The only thing that changes is the numbers on each side,’ McGuirk says.’It’s not an issue on which compromise is possible. People who are pro-choice think that abortion is acceptable and people who are pro-life aren’t going to suddenly say: ‘Well, up to five weeks is OK”.

Ailbhe Smyth says the result will depend on who can best address hearts and minds: they will be voting, she says, with compassion for women but also thinking about decades of church teaching.

‘The ballot paper will be ‘yes’ or ‘no’, so in that sense there is no other choice. My own view, and that within Together for Yes, is that we’re not complacent; we think it’s a challenge, and that people are really wrestling with their consciences,’ she said. On this alone the two sides agree.

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