Ireland set to vote on historic abortion referendum

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In one of the most conservative European countries on reproductive rights, Ireland will vote on a woman’s right to choose.

Ireland will finally get a chance to reconsider its strict laws on abortion when citizens vote May 25 on an abortion referendum. If passed, the law will permit unrestricted abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Brussels, Belgium. 23rd March 2018. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar gives a media conference at the conclusion of an EU summit.

Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach of Ireland, or the country’s prime minister, said that the date was chosen to maximize participation from the general public in voting. In a Reuters report, Irish students tend to leave the area for travel or overseas work for the summer season.

As the first openly gay and biracial prime minister, Varadkar has challenged Ireland’s identity of being one of the most socially conservative countries in the region. One of his first acts as Taoiseach (pronounced tee-shock) was to introduce the upcoming abortion referendum that repeals article 40.3.3., also known as the eighth amendment, which was added to the Irish constitution in 1983.

Varadkar said in an article with the Telegraph, “I know it is a very personal and private issue and for most of us it is not a black and white issue, it is one that is grey – the balance between the rights of a pregnant woman and the fetus or unborn.

Ireland’s Reproductive Rights Challenge

Article 40.3.3, amendment eight, values the life of an unborn fetus as equal to that of the pregnant woman. As a result, this affords the unborn fetus the same legal rights as the woman and consequently criminalizes abortion, even in extreme cases, like rape.

The referendum has caused a split in public conversation. Maébh Daly, a medical scientist who works in a Dublin hospital said, “It’s really people on the fence that you’re trying to reach. You can try to have a reasonable debate, but you really can’t. Someone who is an [anti-choice] campaigner…I don’t see how you could change their mind”.

According to the Telegraph, Ireland’s Health Minister Simon Harris will have the job of drafting new legislation to govern abortion laws in the event of a repeal. While initially opposed to the referendum, since his 2016 appointment as the health minister, he now is in favor of a repeal. Harris said, “just because an issue is complex or sensitive, it does not mean it can be ignored.”

Abortion and the Catholic Church

Currently, opinion polls are pointing slightly in the favor of a change in abortion laws at 56%, but Ireland’s Catholic roots and taboo feelings toward abortion remain widely popular. According to the Daily Telegraph, following a cabinet meeting discussing the issue, Leo Varadkar admitted that with a country so divided, voting on the referendum “will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make.”

Abortion has always been a highly politicized topic in Ireland, particularly because of the country’s Catholic leanings. According to the most recent census, Ireland is 88.4% Roman Catholic. Catholicism’s rigid stance on abortion remains rampant among the public, even with more progressive laws being put into effect around the world.

As an avid proponent for repeal, Daly said that “there’s a history of shame” when it comes to discussing abortion, even among her pro-choice family and friends. “We didn’t experience any kind of development of wealth until we entered the European Union, so the Catholic Church has always been involved…everything has been indoctrinated into society.”

In 2016, Pope Francis permitted that all priests grant absolution for abortion, according to the Christian Science monitor.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis released a document criticizing Catholics who passed harsh criticisms, even on abortion. He wrote, “feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style.”

Abortion Across Borders

It was only in 2013 that abortions in Ireland were ruled legal in the event that the mother’s life is in danger, an event highly protested by much of the religious community. Despite this, harsh laws surrounding a woman’s right to choose still remain.

In addition, Ireland has long witnessed women making passage to different countries just to access abortions, having to hide and escape the law in an effort to exercise their rights to their own bodies. Women would flee Ireland to access abortions in other countries for years. It is reported that there are currently 10 women a day traveling to the UK to obtain an abortion. Find Fact, an organization researches the validity of data says that in 2016, a little under 4000 women went to the England or Wales to terminate a pregnancy.

While it may be a “grey area” for many Irish citizens, Varadkar urges the public to remember: “the saddest and loneliest journey is made by Irish women who travel to foreign countries to end their pregnancies. That doesn’t have to happen.”

Further, the laws banning abortion include women who are miscarrying or have a fetal abnormality. “In other countries, if your baby is not going to survive, there are options,” explains Ms. Daly. “[In Ireland], unless you’re prepared the travel to the UK, you are forced to carry the baby to term.

As the Irish diaspora watches, recent immigrants are being encouraged to return back to the country and vote in the election. The efforts even include marketing the movement on social media with the hashtag #HometoVote.

Read about undocumented Irish in the United States

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Anna Gionet is a copywriter, lover of language, and creative project leader.

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