This article, written for RippleZoo analyses the importance of the upcoming referendum on abortion laws and explains its significance for the Irish society. You can read it here.
On 25th May, Ireland will vote in a referendum that will provide an opportunity to liberalise its strict abortion laws. Voters will get a chance to decide whether to repeal the article 40.3.3 of the constitution, also known as the eighth amendment, which, since 1983, has given pregnant women and unborn foetuses the equal right to life. If the majority votes in favour of the repeal, the government will permit unrestricted abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
In the once strictly Catholic country, abortion has long remained a divisive issue, with the maximum penalty for illegal abortions reaching up to 14 years in prison. It wasn’t until 2013 that the complete ban was lifted with terminations allowed in cases where the life of the mother was in danger, followed by the death of Savita Halappanavar after she was refused an abortion in a Galway hospital in 2012.
There has been a lot of media coverage and debates on this issue in preparation for the referendum. The two (pro- and anti- sides) have been campaigning relentlessly in the hopes of attaining the outcome they are battling for. However, the public debates on this issue have been clouded by religious arguments, that are out of date with modern values and ideologies. While Ireland is still a strongly religious country with a Catholic majority, it has become much more liberal and tolerant in the last few decades, especially with the millennial generation that has embraced diversity and ‘modernity’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, there seems to be a generational divide in this debate. Irish Times/MRBI opinion poll revealed that 74% of 18-24 year olds support the pro choice, compared to only 36% of those over 65. In general, according to the poll, 56% of respondents said they would vote in favour, 29% would vote against and 15% either offered no opinion or haven’t made up their mind yet.
The referendum will follow 2015’s vote, which legalised same-sex marriage, making Ireland the first country in the world to do so through popular vote. Despite the astonishing majority of the 62% vote in favour in the 2015 referendum, which effectually weakened the influence of religion in state matters, the church still holds a considerable sway in spheres like reproductive rights and education.
Although Ireland still remains a predominantly Catholic country, church’s control over Irish society is definitely weakening. For example, in 2016 Census, the persons indicating “no religion” accounted for 9.8% of the population, an increase from 5.9% in 2011, bringing the total number number to 468,421 and making “no religion” the second largest group in 2016. Furthermore, 2016 census recorded the 78,3% of the population who classed themselves “Roman Catholic”, the lowest recorded percentage ever.
The church and religious groups have consistently expressed their opposition to legalising abortions and will play an important part in this debate and the outcome of the referendum. However, the recent decades have seen the power and influence of religion diminish in the Irish society. Combined with the clerical scandals, including the sexual abuse revelations and the news about ‘Magdalene Asylums’, the power of Catholic church suffered greatly.
But, perhaps, the most frustrating aspect of this debate, to the pro-side at least, is the fact that women are not given a choice to decide their fates, sometimes at the cost of their health or even their lives. The anti-abortion arguments are viewed as a last-ditch attempt to retain the power over women and their bodies, to reverse the liberalisation processes of modern day and reduce the freedom and independence of current generations. In Irish law, those who are 18 are classed as adults; they can join the Army or Garda Síochána, drive, purchase and consume alcohol and cigarettes, gamble, consent to sexual intercourse (from 17), get married, leave home, vote etc. But the right to abortion is still somewhat of a forbidden fruit, originating from the old-fashioned religious thinking. A ‘yes’ vote would further diminish the influence of the church in the Irish society and would only deepen its fall.
According to the figures by the U.K. Department of Health, in 2016 there were 4,810 abortions to women resident outside England and Wales, with 67,9% (3,265) of non-residents coming from the Irish Republic. This means that current legal barriers of the Irish legislature do not dissuade Irish citizens from seeking abortions, but rather add financial and emotional obstacles and burdens to the already difficult circumstances and decisions.
The church itself has been routinely criticised for its unyielding views on marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality, but these views are being increasingly challenged and sometimes even ignored. The relationship between the Catholic church and the state has been entwined since the partition of Ireland, but Ireland’s shift in religious beliefs and social attitudes of the past decades will be of major significance in this debate.
But there is another issue that is important to this vote. The one of myth and lies, half-truths and false information. The one about the ‘fake news’. There are different opinions in this debate, but there can’t be different facts. Bigotry, lies and sensationalism have no place in this debate and the outcome of this vote must come out of logical reasoning and modern ideologies.
This vote isn’t about the abortion itself; it is about the right to choose what is best for each individual; it is about women having control over their bodies and it is about allowing each citizen to live the life according to their decisions and beliefs.