Abortion referendum ignites fierce debate in Ireland
Tens of thousands are expected at a rally for abortion rights in Dublin on Saturday, campaigning on one side of a fierce debate after Ireland announced it will hold a referendum on the issue next year.
“This is a show of strength,” said Linda Kavanagh, spokeswoman for the Abortion Rights Campaign.
Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland and in 1983 an eighth amendment was added to the constitution after a referendum, giving equal rights to the life of the unborn child and the mother.
The law was changed three decades later to allow terminations when the mother’s life is at risk, following public outrage at the death of a pregnant woman in 2012 who was refused an abortion.
In the face of mounting public pressure, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Tuesday announced plans for a referendum on the issue to be held in May or June 2018, before a visit by Pope Francis in August.
Ireland is still deeply divided over abortion.
A recent poll by Ipsos/MRBI found 67 per cent of respondents were opposed to abortion in general but that 76 per cent were in favour of legalising it for rape cases.
Prime Minister Varadkar, who trained as a doctor, has called the current laws “too restrictive”.
Varadkar has said he would support abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities but is not supporting wider liberalisation.
Thousands of Irish women currently travel abroad for abortions every year, mainly to England.
The upcoming vote has rallied those on both sides of the debate, including activists trying to keep the current legislation in place, who have said they will be leafleting in cities across Ireland.
“We have every reason to be proud of the eighth amendment which has saved tens of thousands of lives and has prevented the horrific human rights violations that abortion has caused in so many other countries,” said Cora Sherlock, spokeswoman for the Pro-Life Campaign.
The government has already sought to gauge public opinion, setting up a Citizens’ Assembly which between November and April debated the eighth amendment.
Summing up their discussions, most of the 99 members recommended legalising abortion in a wide range of circumstances.
A parliamentary committee has also been examining the abortion law, but on both sides of the debate there is mistrust of officials’ approach.
“I’m willing to bet that 90 per cent of this country have never actually watched an abortion, the real graphic truth,” said Tim Jackson, a marketing consultant who has demanded MPs watch footage of a termination.
To try to help his cause, Jackson carried out a 10-day hunger strike which finished on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, although abortion rights advocates reacted positively to the referendum announcement, there is suspicion that MPs continue to be heavily influenced by the church in the mainly Catholic country.
Unlike the referendum which saw Ireland vote in favour of same-sex marriage in May 2015, no politicians have yet taken a strong position calling for greater abortion access.
Irish media has reacted similarly, reluctant to take a bold stance on an issue which has divided Irish society.
“I think they lack courage for what’s right ... as the pressure that comes from people in their constituencies who may be older and more conservative”, said Brid Smyth.
An MP for the minority Solidarity party, in July she became the first lawmaker to reveal that she had terminated a pregnancy.
“Abortion is a reality for Irish women, it’s just a reality that we export everyday,” she said.