Ireland holds referendum for historic change in abortion rights; activists seek overturn of Catholic law in orthodox state

Dublin: Ireland votes on Friday in an abortion referendum that could be a milestone on a path of change in a country that, only a few decades ago, was one of Europe’s most socially conservative.

Polls suggest Irish voters are set to overturn one of the world’s strictest bans on terminations. Prime minister Leo Varadkar, in favour of a change, has called the referendum a “once-in-a-generation” chance.

File image of abortion protests in Ireland. AFP

File image of abortion law protests in Ireland. AFP

Voters in the once deeply Catholic nation will be asked if they wish to scrap a prohibition that was enshrined in the constitution by referendum 35 years ago, and partly lifted in 2013 only for cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

Ireland has been changing fast. It legalised divorce by a razor-thin majority only in 1995, but three years ago became the first country in the world to adopt gay marriage by popular vote.

A decades-old battle over abortion has played out in a fiercely contested debate that divided political parties, saw the once mighty church take a back seat and became a test case for how global internet giants deal with social media advertising in political campaigns. The campaign has dominated public debate in Ireland over recent months and has forced its nearly 3.5 million voters to decide if the constitutional ban on abortion should stay or go.

Unlike in 1983, when religion was front and centre and abortion was a taboo subject for most people, the campaign was instead defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.

“The conversation that has resulted in me going to the ballot box to vote ‘Yes’ with certainty hasn’t been a straightforward one,” deputy prime minister Simon Coveney wrote in the Irish Independent newspaper on Thursday.

“I have found it difficult, I have stumbled but I have met extraordinary women and men along the way who have changed my perspectives on this deeply emotive issue.”

“Yes” campaigners like Coveney have argued that with over 3,000 women travelling to Britain each year for terminations and others ordering pills illegally online, abortion is already a reality in Ireland.

Government plans "extreme"

Although not on the ballot paper, the “No” camp has seized on government plans to allow terminations with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the referendum is carried, calling it a step too far for most voters.

“More and more people are realising that this government has planned to introduce an extreme abortion law, the only way to stop this is to vote ‘No’,” said Mary Butler, an anti-abortion lawmaker from the main opposition party, Fianna Fail.

Opinion polls have put those who favour changing the law in a clear lead. The two most recent surveys showed the “Yes” side pulling further ahead.

Polling stations close at 21.00 GMT and national broadcaster RTE plans to publish an exit poll at 22.30 GMT. The first indications of the result are expected mid-morning on Saturday after the count begins at 08.00 GMT.

Voters on 12 remote islands in the Atlantic Ocean went to the polls a day early on Thursday to ensure the ballot boxes could be shipped or flown to count centres on the mainland in case of poor weather. After voters on Gola — total electorate 29 — off the Donegal northwest coast cast their ballots, the sealed ballot box was taken back to the mainland on a 10-minute ferry ride by a policeman and an election official.

Meanwhile, city streets are filled with people wearing campaign badges, stickers and tops. Ciara Grealy, 21, from Dublin, said: "I don't know see we should export women to another country to have something that should be done safely and legally here. "One of my best friends had to do it. She found out she was pregnant; the doctors said 'our hands are tied'. She had to get a flight to Liverpool with her parents." She said her friend had found seeing the omnipresent referendum placards distressing.

Activists were out on a final push for votes on Thursday, attempting to convince wavering voters in what has been an emotionally-charged campaign. Cian Flaherty, 22, a history student at Dublin's Trinity College, said it was a matter of human rights and "the unborn is a human being". "Often times, the narrative of choice is a false narrative. A lot of the time, if you feel you've got no support and the only option you have is a termination, I don't think that's a genuine choice," he said.

Caoimhe Mulcahy, 27, an actor from County Clare in western Ireland, said it was a question of women's health and many had "really suffered" with unregulated, unsafe and illegal abortions. "There isn't one easy solution but people are suffering and we need to change it," she said.

Many expatriate Irish have travelled home to vote in one of the few European Union countries that do not allow those abroad to vote via post or in embassies.

Those away for less than 18 months remain eligible to vote at their former local polling station, and a majority appeared to back change. Analysts said a high turnout, particularly in urban areas, would likely favour the “Yes” side.

“If anything, I’m sitting a little bit more comfortably after the last week having viewed the debates and the general moods and commentary of the ‘No’ camp,” said Richard Colwell, chief executive of Red C, whose latest poll on Sunday showed 56 percent for, 27 percent against and 14 percent still undecided. “But that’s what everybody thought when Brexit happened. We can’t be complacent about it but it does appear that it’s going to be a ‘Yes’ vote at this stage.”

The law was tweaked in 2013 to allow terminations if the mother's life is at risk, following the death of Savita Halappanavar, a pregnant woman originally from India who was refused an abortion. The Irish government has proposed that if the eighth amendment is repealed, abortion will be allowed up to 12 weeks and between 12 and 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.

With inputs from Reuters and AFP 


Updated Date: May 25, 2018 10:17 AM

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