The abortion debate has divided Ireland. Picture: AFP/Artur Widak
The abortion debate has divided Ireland. Picture: AFP/Artur Widak

Sign at centre of national divide about abortion

IRISH voters are preparing to go to the polls in a tense referendum that could legalise abortion, as the opposing sides use the final hours to win a debate that has divided the country.

Ireland was once seen as the most Catholic country in the world. But in recent times it has become less religious and in 2015 - after another referendum - Irish voters approved allowing same-sex marriage. Other laws around divorce and contraception have also been relaxed.

Like the same-sex marriage debate before it, the abortion referendum has split public opinion and fuelled angst in the peaceful island country. Rural areas in particular - where many citizens were reluctant to state their preference - were being tipped to vote "No", while a large proportion of younger voters elsewhere were backing the bid to change the law.

Polls conducted for media outlets suggest as many as 20 per cent of voters are yet to decide.

In a bid to win the referendum, women have shared their stories of being denied abortions, while the opposing side claimed the law change would create an "abortion on demand" service.

In a sign of how tense the debate has become, many of the hoardings that have filled Irish cities and towns have been ripped down.

The vote will determine if the eighth amendment to the Irish Constitution will be overturned. That amendment enshrined in law the rights of the foetus, which is recognised equal to the mother.

 

Activists from the Together For Yes campaign hold leaflets as they canvass for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum.
Activists from the Together For Yes campaign hold leaflets as they canvass for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum.

 

As a result, legal abortions were effectively outlawed. Just over a decade later, in 1993, women were given the right to travel overseas, usually to England, to have abortions, which gave women some options but didn't properly deal with the issue. It's estimated at least 3000 Irish women travel to the UK each year for an abortion.

It remained a taboo topic until 2012 when a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant died from blood poisoning. Savita Halappanavar was taken to hospital in pain and began to miscarry. Doctors denied her an abortion and when she died the issue of abortion once again began to be fiercely debated.

If the "Yes" vote wins, abortion will be available for up to 12 weeks without restriction. Beyond that it would only be allowed if there was a threat to life or if there was a terminal foetal abnormality.

The "No" campaign was planning to release ads on social media and online urging voters to reject the proposal - but those plans came unstuck when Facebook banned all foreign campaign ads and Google went even further, banning foreign and domestic campaign ads.

Many commentators believe the interventions by tech companies could influence the result.

There has been a big surge in voter registrations, suggesting a big turnout on Friday.

While the same-sex marriage vote of 2015 was largely conducted respectfully, the abortion issue has invoked far more passionate debate.

 

The vote has divided public opinion.
The vote has divided public opinion.

 

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who backs the "Yes" campaign, slammed the pro-life lobby for using images of people with Down syndrome and suggesting repeal would lead to terminations of babies with the genetic disorder.

Television debates have been criticised for descending into point scoring, while medical professionals taking a stance have been assailed.

"No" campaigners have claimed a biased liberal mainstream media is in cahoots with the "Yes" lobby and, with a majority of Irish MPs backing repeal, they pit themselves as anti-establishment with the slogan: "Join the rebellion."

Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter has predicted a cliffhanger result.

"I think this is going to be knife edge. It's very difficult to ascertain from the polls exactly how people are thinking. There are an awful lot of undecideds and there seem to be people who are torn in terms of how they might vote," he told the ABC.

There could be parallels of the polls leading to the 2016 presidential vote that saw Donald Trump stun rival Hillary Clinton.

 

Savita Halappanavar who died after being refused a termination of her pregnancy at a hospital in Galway.
Savita Halappanavar who died after being refused a termination of her pregnancy at a hospital in Galway.

 

"I suspect that because of the delicate nature of this subject and the emotiveness of this subject, there may well be people who are either not being very forthcoming when they are asked how they will vote, or else are perhaps giving answers that ultimately may change."

A television debate last night ended without any clear winner, with Health Minister Simon Harris accusing "No" campaigners of wanting to force women who had been raped carry their pregnancies full term. In response an anti-abortion MP, Peadar Toibin, labelled the government's plans as "breathtakingly extreme".

Mr Toibin said the government was trying to "twist the arm of the Irish people to allow abortion on demand by focusing on those hard cases", reported The Irish Times.

Fabiana Mizzoni, 27, is campaigning for a "Yes" vote. She had an abortion nearly 10 years ago and said Ireland has been "turning a blind eye" to the uncomfortable issue, but could do so no longer.

"Saying abortions should be illegal doesn't stop them, it just stops safe abortions," she told AFP in a recent interview.

Ms Mizzoni was still at school when she became pregnant, saying she didn't feel able to tell her friends.

"Because all of us went to Catholic schools we were told really awful things about women getting pregnant unexpectedly," she said.

 

A pro-choice mural based on a work by Banksy urging a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution. Picture: AFP
A pro-choice mural based on a work by Banksy urging a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution. Picture: AFP

 

The Dublin resident recalled the terror she felt going to Britain to undergo the procedure, telling how all phone calls to the clinic were made "from Mum's car, in car parks", and how she had to invent a story of visiting her grandmother.

"I was getting paranoid and I was afraid there were loopholes in my story - it was all a blur," she said, recalling the relief when the procedure was over.

"Even though I knew it was right for me, it's coupled with feeling shame."

Irish are only allowed to vote from within the country and supporters from both sides are heading back to their homeland to cast their votes.

Laoise Ní Dhubhrosa backed the "No" campaign and was heading back from London to vote. She told The Guardian: "The perception in the media here is that the #hometovote is all about 'Yes'. We believe the unborn should be protected and the [eighth amendment] saved."

 

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is a supporter of the ‘Yes’ vote.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is a supporter of the ‘Yes’ vote.

Caroline Simons of the Love Both campaign group warned that if the constitution was amended, the country would go from being a country that "protects unborn babies to one of the most extreme abortion regimes in the world".

With less than 48 hours to go, the only thing that can be said for certain is Friday is going to bring happiness to many and heartache to others.

 

- With AFP and Reuters

 

andrew.koubaridis@news.com.au



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