NENAGH/CORK: Three decades after Ireland introduced one of the world’s only constitutional bans on abortion, the Church that was so pivotal in securing the law’s passage finds itself a minor player in the now mainly secular battle to repeal it.
A vote on May 25 on whether to scrap the 1983 ban is the latest referendum to gauge just how much has changed in Ireland, once one of Europe’s most socially conservative and staunchly Catholic countries.
Polls suggest the repeal camp is in the lead but the vote is much closer than three years ago when Ireland became the first country to back gay marriage in a national referendum. The one-in-five who are undecided are likely to decide the outcome, both sides say.
As in the gay marriage case, the role of the Catholic Church this time is tricky: some feel the Church should be out in front robustly defending one of its core teachings. Others worry moralizing by celibate priests may prove counter-productive.
“The priests in a way are damned if they do and damned if they don’t,” leading anti-abortion activist Vicky Wall said as she campaigned in central Ireland against repeal.
The leaflets she distributed around the rural market town of Nenagh mentioned religion just once, to address concerns that campaigners in favor of the ban were imposing their beliefs on the country.
“Not true. You don’t have to be from any faith tradition to agree that human life should be protected… The right to life is first and foremost a human rights issue,” it read.
Religion was front and center when Ireland voted to ban abortion in a 1983 referendum described by columnist Gene Kerrigan as part of a “moral civil war” between conservative Catholics and progressive liberals for the country’s future.
The eighth amendment to enshrine the equal right to life of mother and her unborn child was proposed by a coalition of Catholic groups who feared Ireland would follow the United States and United Kingdom into expanding access to abortion.
Protestant churches felt the wording was too rigid, but it passed by a margin of two to one.
The result showed the depth of Catholic influence in Ireland. But it also consolidated opposition when the implications of the ban became clear in a series of legal cases just as clerical abuse scandals rocked trust in the Church.
Ireland was transfixed by the 1992 case of a 14-year-old rape victim barred from leaving the country by judicial order after she told the police she was planning to get an abortion. The injunction was lifted by the Supreme Court on the grounds her life was deemed at risk by suicide.
A referendum later that year enshrined the right of women to travel for an abortion, legalizing a stream of more than 3,000 women who go to Britain every year for terminations.
In 2012 a 31-year-old Indian immigrant died from a septic miscarriage after being refused an abortion that might have saved her life.
The ensuing outcry led to legislation the next year to allow abortion when a woman’s life is in danger and, combined with criticism from the United Nations and European Court of Human Rights, helped build political pressure for a referendum to repeal the ban.