Ireland's Abortion Referendum Is Proving Deeply Divisive

May 24, 2018
Originally published on May 24, 2018 4:49 pm

On a bright afternoon outside the elegant facade of Trinity College Dublin, students hand out flyers to passers-by urging them to vote in Friday's referendum to lift Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion in most circumstances.

"Please vote yes on Friday! Thank you! Please vote yes," chirp the students, who have big smiles and colored sweaters with "REPEAL" emblazoned across the front.

But despite the grins, they say campaigning has not been a wholly pleasant experience. "It's been very emotionally taxing," says Sinéad Clarke, 22. "People come up to you and say they hope you die." They have also cursed and called her "slut," and one tore up a poster.

The debate over whether Ireland should change its abortion laws, currently some of the strictest in Europe, has played out with bitter intensity on the streets of Dublin, in ferocious television debates, controversial online ads, via church pulpits and difficult family discussions.

More than 3 million people registered to vote in Friday's referendum, according to the Irish Examiner newspaper. If a majority of them choose yes, that would repeal a constitutional amendment recognizing the "right to life of the unborn." The government would then introduce a bill on abortion that would be debated in parliament. Health Minister Simon Harris told The Irish Times he would hope to be able to pass such a bill into law by the end of the year.

Polls a week before the vote showed the "yes" side ahead, but its lead had narrowed from earlier surveys — and a significant group remained undecided.

Since the 1990s, historically socially conservative Ireland has changed. The country has legalized easier access to contraception, divorce, homosexuality and same-sex marriage. But the acrimony of the abortion debate highlights that for some people, this feels like a very different issue.

"I'm very proud to be part of this new Ireland," says medical doctor Andrew O'Regan. "I'm part of this progressive generation, a lecturer in university and I'm surrounded by university students every day." Yet he is campaigning to keep abortion laws as they are — with the procedure available only in cases when a woman's life is in danger.

"Human rights extend to everybody, not just the strong," he says. "The most weak and the most voiceless are the babies in the womb."

Many "no" campaigners have made compassion their theme. A spokeswoman for the LoveBoth campaign group, Geraldine Martin, says Ireland's health minister should give more financial support to women who might end a pregnancy because they cannot afford to raise a child.

Thousands of Irish women travel abroad to have abortions, or take illegal abortion-inducing drugs, each year.

"We've all known women who felt that they've no other options," Martin says. "We've all known women who've felt vulnerable and lonely."

But for all the emphasis on compassion, the "no" campaign's opponents say they are tainted by association with the body that has been most insistent on keeping abortion illegal, the Roman Catholic Church.

"The treatment of women outside marriage in Ireland over decades was really brutal," says Ursula Barry, a sociology professor at University College Dublin.

Last century, many unmarried mothers ended up in church-run homes or in laundry factories where they were forced to work without pay. Their babies were often given up for adoption.

"So there's all that background," says Barry, "when you're looking to disentangle the discussion and debate around abortion in Ireland. There's all that history of fear and stigma and shame and marginalization."

Investigations into the forced clothes-washing factories, called the Magdalene Laundries, and other abuses perpetrated by Catholic clergy, including child abuse, have eroded the credibility of and support for the church in this largely Catholic country.

That shift means the atmosphere now is very different from the one in which the eighth amendment to the constitution was implemented, also after a public referendum.

Abortion in Ireland was already illegal long before the amendment, but America's landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which made abortion available in the United States, raised concerns among Catholic groups. Seeking to avoid similar legislation in Ireland, campaigners pressed for a constitutional amendment to firm up the country's legal provisions against abortion.

Una Mullally, an author and abortion-rights campaigner, says she sat down one day with her parents and asked them how they voted in 1983.

"And they said that they voted for the eighth amendment, which I kind of guessed, I suppose," she says. "My dad was a religion teacher for 40 years; my mum grew up in East Galway." Especially in rural areas, the Catholic Church's stance was everyone's stance.

But Mullally, 34, says that over her lifetime, she has seen the influence of the church wane dramatically, including over her parents.

"What's been emotional for me actually is my parents are voting for repeal. And my mum is canvassing," she says. "And seeing them really address what they were told and challenging that as pensioners has been very powerful."

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The people of Ireland vote tomorrow in a referendum that would open up the availability of abortion - this, in a country that has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Opinion polls show that the vote is likely to be closely contested in that country, where a majority of people still describe themselves as Catholic. Here's reporter Alice Fordham from Dublin.

ALICE FORDHAM: In bright sunshine outside the elegant entrance to Trinity College Dublin, students hand out leaflets asking people to vote to repeal the part of the Irish constitution that effectively bans abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Hi. Please vote yes on Friday.

FORDHAM: They wear cheery colored sweaters with repeal written on them and big smiles. But one of them, Sinead Clark, says it's not been easy.

SINEAD CLARK: It's been very emotionally taxing, and especially even just today when people come up to you and say they hope you die or yell rude words at you - just, like, slut, things like that.

FORDHAM: For a historically socially conservative country, Ireland has made huge changes since the 1990s, making contraception widely available, then legalizing divorce and homosexuality, and more recently, allowing same-sex marriage. But the bitterness of this debate highlights that for some people, abortion is just different.

ANDREW O'REGAN: I'm very proud to be part of the new Ireland. I'm part of this progressive generation. I lecture in university, and I'm surrounded by university students every day.

FORDHAM: This medical doctor, Andrew O'Regan, wants to keep abortion available only in cases of extreme risk to the mother.

O'REGAN: Of course, human rights extend to everybody, not just the strong, and they're there to protect the weak. The most weak and the most voiceless are the babies in the womb.

FORDHAM: A lot of anti-abortion campaigners have made compassion their theme. A spokeswoman, Geraldine Martin, says the health minister, Simon Harris, should give more financial support to women who might end pregnancies because they can't afford to raise a child. Thousands of Irish women travel abroad to have abortions each year.

GERALDINE MARTIN: We've all known women who have felt that have no other option for abortion. We've all known women who've - they've felt vulnerable and lonely. And I think it is unforgivable that Simon Harris would propose abortion as a solution without having adopted any other measures to meet these women and their needs.

FORDHAM: But despite this emphasis on compassion, its opponents say this campaign is tainted by association with the body that has been most insistent on keeping abortion illegal - the Catholic Church. Sociology professor Ursula Barry says the church has a dark, misogynistic history in Ireland.

URSULA BARRY: The treatment of women outside marriage in Ireland over decades was really brutal. Women were incarcerated in mother-and-baby homes, and they were forced to work in laundries until their babies were born, and then their babies were taken off them and put up for adoption in Ireland, England and America.

FORDHAM: A series of investigations into these church-run homes has established that this abuse was widespread. In the wake of that and other scandals, the church's authority has eroded here, and that probably has contributed to a decrease in opposition to abortion. Pro-abortion campaigner and author Una Mullally says this referendum feels like a moment of reckoning.

UNA MULLALLY: Facing up to this legacy that we have in a country that is so dark when it comes to dealing with women and trying to confront the trauma that exists on a national level with regards to how we talk about reproductive rights is difficult - you know? - and realizing how much work we have to do as a society to face up to those things - so it's been really quite testing, I think, for a lot of people.

FORDHAM: Mullally says her parents voted in favor of the constitutional amendment banning abortion in 1983, and this time around, they are campaigning to repeal it. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Dublin.