In less than a month’s time, voters in the Republic of Ireland will vote in a historic referendum on the future of the country’s stance on reproductive rights.
On 25 May, Irish citizens will decide whether or not to repeal part of their constitution, the Eighth Amendment, which outlaws abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. Abortion is currently permissible when the mother’s life is at risk.
A referendum in 1983 saw the amendment instituted, with the country affirming to protect as far as practicable the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother. Critics of the constitution say the legislation places women at risk of dangerous backstreet abortions. Around nine women travel to another country a day for the of procedure, campaigners have noted. Abortion is also severely restricted north of the border, meaning women often have to travel to northern England, an isolating and financially difficult experience.
The main group advocating repeal, Together for Yes, want to permit access to abortion up to a twelve-week limit and introduce more lenient conditions, such as rape, incest, and foetal abnormality.
The leader of the governing party, Fine Gael, has backed the repeal camp.
In a speech made in Dublin, the Irish leader Leo Varadkar urged voters to consider compassion at the polling booth. The Taoiseach said the amendment was an example of how the nation wrongs women today. “I trust women and I trust doctors,” he said, stating he wanted Ireland “to be able to look women in the eye when for too long we have looked away.”
Mr Varadkar also criticised some of the claims made by the No campaigners asking: “If we really believe the Eighth Amendment will result in five times as many women having an abortion – what does that say about us?”
The smaller parties, Sinn Fein and Labour, have also endorsed the Yes campaign. “The party I lead is a big tent; there will be no whip, no merits or demerits, just freedom of conscience,” Mr Varadkar stated. Fine Gael politicians who have broken the party line by either opposing or reserving their stance on the referendum include 13 of the party’s 15 ministers of State.
Almost half of people surveyed for a Behaviour & Attitudes/Sunday Times poll said they wanted the amendment to be repealed. 29 percent said they did not want repeal, and 21 percent said they were unsure.
Despite this public support, the debate is controversial and emotionally charged. Tensions peaked last week with the removal of a pro-choice mural in Dublin, which Yes campaigners have dubbed as censorship.
The Catholic Church has been advocating for its members to vote No in the ballot, describing the impact of repeal as ushering in “unrestricted access to abortion”. Both the Church of Ireland primate, Archbishop Richard Clarke, and the Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, said ending pregnancies “at any stage” was “not an ethical position we can accept”. This is the church’s long-standing position.