Ireland abortion referendum: How much has country changed?

According to polls it seems that people in the referendum will say yes to changing the strict Irish abortion law. How do you see this and and what are the main factors that people, at least according to polls, tend to support the change? Read few comments.

Michael HolmesSenior Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

First of all, although the polls are showing that the Yes vote is in the lead, there are a lot of undecided voters. There is also a noticeable divide in the country – more rural areas are clearly more conservative on this issue, while urban constituencies are more liberal. There is a potential problem that the various news media outlets (television, radio, newspapers etc) reflect the liberal point of view more strongly (although I think they have all tried very hard to be balanced throughout the campaign, and I have been following it closely online).

We have of course several examples of recent elections and referendums which have been influenced by a populist reaction against perceived liberal bias. I do not think Ireland fits this model, but it is wise to be cautious. After all, abortion is an issue which arouses quite strong emotional reactions, and that makes it particularly susceptible to populist rhetoric.

With that being said, there are several factors which have moved Ireland, in a relatively short space of time, from a country where the legalisation of abortion would have been unthinkable to one where it seems likely to happen. First of all, the existing legislation (both constitutional and ordinary law) dealing with abortion is widely acknowledged by all sides to be a complete mess.

Second, Ireland has changed considerably in recent years – it has become a more open and more tolerant society. The 2015 referendum that approved gay marriage was one indicator of this change. What has caused this societal shift? More access to education, more opportunities to travel and to experience different cultures, and the fact that the Catholic Church has lost a lot of its prestige and power in Ireland (because of the succession of abuse scandals that hit the church)

There are also specific reasons relating to the abortion issue.
– First, and to my mind the most important, there have been a number of cases in Ireland where the flaws in the existing abortion laws became very clear – particularly the deaths of pregnant women in Irish hospitals (notably the Savita Halappanavar case).
– Related to this, new pharmaceutical developments have highlighted the contradictions between what people can do and what the law allows them to do – particularly with the growth in use of ‘morning-after’ pills. There are already many Irish women self-medicating in this way, but being unsure if they can access medical care should there be any complications
– Above all, in recent years Irish women have increasingly spoken publicly about their own experiences of pregnancy and abortion, in a way that has turned an abstract ethical point into a real, complicated, human debate. There are still thousands of Irish women who travel every year to the UK for abortions.

Lisa Smyth, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast

It seems to me that the moral politics which supported the introduction of the Eighth Amendment have been transformed over the last 35 years. While abortion was treated as an abstract moral question in the debates running up to the 1983 referendum, it has effectively now been reframed as a women’s health issue, as case after case have undermined the moral certainties evident in the debate in the early 1980s. The ban on abortion established an ‘honour code’, in Anthony Appiah’s terms (2010), by generating a moral panic about the future survival of the nation if abortion were to become legally available in the state, supressing dissent and successfully attaching shame to violations of that code. Abortion consequently became unspeakable and hidden during the 1980s and 1990s. However, the impact of this honour code on the lives of girls and women over time has made that honour code itself a source of shame. International attention has focused time and again on cases where women have been allowed to die rather than receiving healthcare while pregnant, whether because of terminal illness or miscarriage, and others have been forced to leave the country to end impossible pregnancies, sometimes even accompanied by police and funded by the state, when a ward of the court was involved. The moral standing of the eighth amendment has been undermined. The public telling of personal stories of abortion indicates that it is no longer deeply shameful. Instead, shame is attached to the ban itself, and the actions of the state in support of that ban. The reversal of the honour code has also meant that the campaign for a ‘No’ vote has not been able to rely on claims that repealing the eighth amendment would be catastrophic for the future survival of the nation. Instead, that campaign focused on defending foetal health, particularly by emphasizing disability rights. This change suggests a transformed moral landscape, where understandings of what is at stake with abortion law has shifted considerably.

David FarrellProfessor, Head, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin

The polls suggest that Yes should win, but the data gathering for the most recent polls was several weeks ago, which means we don’t have a firm indication today of how it will go.  Most commentators expect it to be very close, with possibly the Yes side just edging it.

Assuming it is Yes, then that would mean that voters had accepted the argument that the existing abortion ban is draconian (one of the strictest in Europe) and that it ignores the hard reality that Irish women already avail of the opportunity to terminate pregnancies either by illegally importing abortion pills or by flying to the UK and other European countries for abortions.

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