On March 6 Ireland will go to the polls to vote in a referendum the outcome of which will profoundly affect the fate of the unborn child in Ireland. Pro-choice and pro-life groups are under no illusions about the importance of this referendum.
If the pro-choice groups win, then from here on in almost every legislative initiative will lie with them. They will start by pressing for legislation allowing for abortion when a woman claims to be suicidal and can find a psychologist who will agree with her. Then they will then widen the psychological grounds until they have abortion-on-demand.
If the pro-life side wins on the other hand, although the pressure for abortion legislation will not disappear, it should recede into the distant future. The next step, having won the legal battle, will be to concentrate the greater part of the efforts of the pro-life movement on finding ways to reduce the number of Irish women traveling to England each year for an abortion. Currently this stands at 7,000, which means about one in seven Irish pregnancies ends in abortion. This is just over half the rate for Britain and America.
This will be the third time Ireland has gone to the polls over abortion. In 1983 we voted by a margin of two-toone to insert into the Constitution an amendment protecting the unborn child. In 1992, following the decision of the Supreme Court in the so-called “X” case to allow abortion where a woman, backed by a psychologist, claimed to be suicidal, the country voted to allow women to travel abroad for abortions, and to receive abortion information.
This time, the country will be voting to reverse the “X” case decision, meaning psychological grounds for abortion will be removed. To date, no abortions have taken place in Ireland because of the “X” case, but this is only because of a long-standing political stalemate, and because the governing body of Irish doctors considers abortion to be professional misconduct.
‘The great fear of the Irish bishops and the pro-life groups supporting the proposal is that the pro-life split will result in its defeat.’
Unfortunately, the pro-life movement in Ireland is split about the referendum. Some pro-life groups, chief among them Youth Defense, think the government proposal actually weakens protection for the unborn. This is chiefly because the legislation before the electorate deals with the unborn only after the embryo has implanted in the womb. They believe this effectively withdraws protection from the unborn between conception and implantation.
This is an interpretation hotly disputed by most other pro-life groups including the main one, the Pro-Life Campaign. They say the unborn child, pre-implantation, is still protected by the amendment of 1983.
Critically, this interpretation is also rejected by the Catholic hierarchy. Even more critically, the line being taken by the Irish bishops has the support of the Vatican. A delegation representing the bishops visited Rome shortly after the government proposal was announced in October and won support for the line they are taking.
The great fear of the bishops and the pro-life groups supporting the proposal is that the split will result in its defeat, because there is no split on the pro-choice side. It is united in its opposition to the proposal. Organizations such as Doctors for Choice and the Irish Family Planning Association have come together under the banner Alliance for a No Vote. They have the support of Labor, Ireland's third-largest party, and Fine Gael, the main opposition party. In addition, all of the main media are opposed to the proposal, including the national broadcaster, RTE.
At a typical press conference of the Yes side, pro-life campaigners will be asked challenging questions about the life of the mother, and hard cases like rape and incest. At press conferences of the No side, pro-choice campaigners will be asked soft, leading questions about the same topics.
Almost never is the No side asked about the status and rights of the unborn.
This is making it very difficult for the Yes side to get its message out. The message is a simple enough one, namely that the amendment, if passed, will protect both the life of the mother and the life of the unborn. Because the media is focusing almost entirely on the life of the mother, the unborn are being left out of the debate to a large extent. The longer the focus is on the mother only, the less chance this measure has of being passed.
The No side is running a negative, scare-mongering campaign. Although Ireland has one of the finest maternal health care systems in the world — one that proves you don't need abortion to save women's lives — they are saying the absence of abortion puts in danger the lives, as well as the mental and physical health of women. They are saying that if the amendment is passed, women will be put in “even more” danger.
Also, the hard cases involving rape and incest are being used to pummel the pro-life side into submission. To make up for the difficulty of getting their case out through the media, the pro-life side is canvassing voters directly. The country is being blanketed with posters calling for a Yes vote. Leaflets are being sent to every home in the country. The bishops will be issuing further statements in support of the measure. Hopefully parish priests will also lend it their support in a country where more than half of the population still goes to Mass.
A fierce battle is currently underway in a country that is almost the only one in the world to allow a popular vote on such an important moral issue, instead of letting the courts or the legislature decide it.
If this is passed, Ireland will remain one of the very few places in the world not to allow abortion. If it fails, then in a few short years we will change, and from a pro-choice point of view, the Irish nail will have been hammered into place at long last.
David Quinn, editor of The Irish
Catholic, writes from Dublin.