Ireland’s very personal question: Yes or No to changing the abortion laws
“12 weeks with no restrictions. Vote No”; “In England, 1 in 5 babies are aborted. Vote No” is the message from the Love Both campaign leading the opposition to abortion. “Yes for Dignity, Yes for Compassion, Vote Yes”; “Sometimes a Private Matter needs Public Support. Vote Yes” urges the Together For Yes movement, which wants the law changed.
But away from the public noise, other, more private conversations are taking place within families and between close friends, as people tease out the issues ahead of delivering their verdict on the abortion laws for the fourth time in 35 years. One in five citizens has yet to decide how to vote, according to the most recent opinion polls. As the gap between the two sides narrows, it is this group that will be critical in deciding the outcome.
“This is very different to the gay marriage vote,” one campaigner says. “Then you would have a chat about it at work and most people were happy to give their views. But this time round you’re not going to have that conversation, you’re not going to ask someone what they think about abortion; it’s a much more personal kind of question. I think a lot of people will still be making up their minds when they go into the polling station.”
Traditional voices – such as Church leaders and many elected politicians – have receded from the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child. Rather than dominating the discussion, they have taken on the role of campaign understudies, with the bishops, for example, for the most part simply rehearsing the key issues around the sanctity of life in pastoral letters or personal reflections.
Instead, both sides of this campaign have been nurtured at grassroots level and have gained momentum through highly professional, engaged civic society groups. Many of the leading voices at rallies and local events are women, reflecting a confident, highly educated generation, determined to articulate a very different vision of their role in Irish society. Away from the polling strategies and the media management, this has been a campaign that has brought individual stories and personal emotions centre stage.
Stories like those of Bernadette Goulding, who I met for a coffee in Cork. She had rushed to our appointment from an earlier interview. “I decided I had to speak out because what is being proposed by this government is shocking and extreme,” she tells me. “A lot of people are being swayed by the hard stories of the repeal movement but an awful lot of people are also deeply confused”.
A grandmother now, she had an abortion when she was 19 and living in London. It was only when she confided in a woman from her parish in Cork many years later that she says she began “to end the isolation and dismantle the secret of what had happened.” She says that she “would give my life to have that life back now”. She works with Rachel’s Vineyard, an organisation that supports women who have had an abortion and regret it. She has also been speaking at Love Both meetings, urging people to “be proud of our pro-life laws in Ireland.”
Over a hundred miles north, near Delgany, County Wicklow, Carol Hunter is discussing the press launch of her Grandparents for Repeal campaign, backed by a number of well known Irish women. She founded the group in the autumn and it operates mainly through Facebook and Twitter. “For us as grandparents, this is about human rights in the most basic way,” she explains. “We love our families and we don’t want to impose our views, but we do want to be there for them.”
She will be voting Yes on 25 May because “the Eighth Amendment is a brick wall which prevents people making medical and health decisions in the most basic way”.
Some members of the group would have voted No in previous referendums, others have had experiences of daughters having terminations, she says. Out on the campaign trail, “many people say, ‘Enough is enough, we can’t go on like this,’” she adds. “The time has come to show real compassion to people in really difficult situations here in Ireland.”
On Friday, citizens will be asked whether they want to remove Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution and replace it with wording that would allow politicians to set the country’s abortion laws in the future. At present, Ireland’s abortion laws are among the strictest in Europe, while the most recent figures from the UK’s Department of Health show that 3,265 women who gave Republic of Ireland addresses had abortions in England and Wales in 2016.
In the event of a Yes vote, under the government’s plans, terminations will be available during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and in very specific circumstances after that – where there is a risk to a woman’s life or a risk of serious harm to the health of the mother. Abortions will also be available in cases involving a fatal foetal abnormality. If the Amendment is not repealed, the current position will remain, which is that a woman will only be able to seek an abortion when it is deemed that her life is at risk.
For volunteers and canvassers on the doorsteps, this is a vigorous, hard-fought campaign and both sides stress that the gap between the size of the Yes and No camps is closing. The latest Irish Times poll in April suggests there is still a clear majority – 47 per cent – in favour of removing the constitutional ban, although that support has dropped since earlier in the year. The survey also found there had been no growth in the numbers saying they will vote to retain the Eighth Amendment, with 28 per cent saying they will vote No; a fifth of voters said they had yet to make up their minds.
Other polls show an urban-rural divide, with many people trying to weigh the balance between the rights of the unborn child and the individual’s rights, and assess the scale of the abortion laws the government is proposing if there is a Yes vote.
But it is the digital campaign that has proved the most contentious. Last week, Facebook announced that it would not accept abortion referendum advertisements paid for by foreign organisations, while Google said it would stop all advertising in relation to the Eighth Amendment campaign, over concerns about the integrity of the vote. Yes campaigners and supporters welcomed the decision; however campaigners for retaining the Eighth have been highly critical of Google’s action, saying it puts the No side at a “big disadvantage”, as it deprives them of one of their most important platforms. “Google’s ban is censorship on a massive scale,” according to Anne Murray, of the Pro-life Campaign.
“The main thing for us now is to have as many conversations as possible outside Dublin to talk about the realities of the Eighth,” according to Orla O’Connor, co-director of the Together for Yes campaign and one of those taking part in a nationwide tour, which dipped into Limerick city last week. “We always knew this was going to be tight but the base of our Yes support is holding firm. We know this is a difficult and uncomfortable issue for many people, and we find that talking to them makes a big difference.”
Weaving through the pedestrianised shopping streets in a biting wind and a lunchtime deluge, the majority of campaigners are young women, and their main focus is on media opportunities. For Sinead Redmond, a mother of two daughters living in rural Limerick, the issue is personal. Having had a medical emergency during her most recent pregnancy, when she nearly died, “I want to know that … I will be in a position where I will be safe in the country if we look to growing our family again.”
Nearby, a taxi driver echoed the views of some men when he wondered if he should vote. “I think this is really an issue for women; it’s not up to me to tell a woman what to do in this situation”.
Amid the Georgian elegance of Dublin’s Merrion Square last Saturday, a very different mood prevailed as thousands gathered for the last major rally of the No side. The Love Both event heard from spokeswoman Cora Sherlock, who told the crowd: “Genuine health care is about saving lives not ending them”. It was “unthinkable” that within the next few weeks, what she described as “abortion on demand” could be a reality.
In a street festooned with balloons, posters and pink banners, older campaigners unfurled their sporting flags as Donegal and Waterford, Galway and Dublin said “No”. At the front were families and young women and men, encouraging others to share their pictures and increase “visibility” on Instagram and Snapchat. “People do want a better Ireland for women, but we can do better than abortion. It is life-ending, not life-saving,” explained Anne Murray. “What we want people to realise is the implication of their vote, and that it will change the kind of country we live in for years to come.” Student Gavin Boyne declared he “owed his life to the Eighth Amendment”, and urged the crowd to “get out and canvass”.
Whatever the outcome of next weekend’s vote, two things are clear: abortion is now part of the national conversation and the result will not mean the debate is over. Both sides say that if they lose, they will continue to campaign – for another referendum, possibly – or to ensure that any new laws are as restrictive or as liberal as possible. Either way, it is a defining moment for Ireland.