At first glance, it seemed paradoxical. Ireland’s voters were rejecting a proposal to put a limited right to abortion in their country’s constitution, yet pro-choice campaigners who have battled for years to win those rights were celebrating. For the prochoice activists, the proposal amounted to a step backward because it made no provision for abortion when a woman’s health is threatened, or for cases of rape and incest. So at a crowded, smokey club in Dublin’s Parnell Square last week, they cheered as the first results of Ireland’s second referendum on abortion in nine years were announced: a resounding No to allowing abortion in cases where a mother’s life is threatened. “It is a genuinely historic occasion,” exulted Ailbhe Smyth, leader of a coalition of 15 pro-choice groups which fought the proposed amendment, as fellow campaigners around her hoisted glasses of wine and pints of dark Irish stout. And they toasted the approval of two other related constitutional amendments as well: one establishing the right to travel abroad for an abortion; the other affirming the right to distribute information about abortion services.
In all, it was a busy political week in Ireland. A general election held on the same day as the referendum gave the left-leaning Labor Party its strongest showing ever, doubling its representation in Ireland’s parliament, the Dail. Taken together, the votes were a strong departure from the long-established conservative patterns of Irish politics. “We’re seeing a fundamental shift from traditional ways of thinking and voting,” said Caroline McCamley, another pro-choice leader. “The politicians just hadn’t realized it was happening.”
Still, Ireland’s long-running and emotional debate over abortion is far from over, in part because last week’s referendum did not offer voters a clear choice on the issue. Even the Roman Catholic Church, Ireland’s most powerful moral force, could not give clear advice to its followers, although some bishops advised voting No. The government of Prime Minister Albert Reynolds had presented it as a “pro-life amendment,” arguing that those opposed to abortion should approve it or face legislation establishing even wider grounds for abortion.
Despite the defeat, Ireland’s once-firm opposition to abortion has been severely under-
mined. The change began in February when the case of an unnamed 14-yearold girl, who had become pregnant after a rape, shook the country deeply. The girl threatened suicide if she could not end the pregnancy. But the government cited a 1983 ban on abortions and forbade her to travel to England for an operation, a route chosen by about 5,000 Irish women each year. Eventually, Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that the girl’s right to life should allow her to leave the country for an abortion. The so-called X case sparked a profound change in attitudes. “Since the X case, there has been a sea change in opinion,” said Maxine Brady, a student leader and pro-choice activist. “It forced people to deal with a difficult real-life situation rather than abstract principles. From then on, it became clear that we had to allow abortions in some cases.” Largely because of confusion surrounding the issue, the campaign was not nearly as divisive as a 1983 referendum, which led to the ban on ahorns tion, and which commentators at the g time likened to a moral civil war. Aside E from a few incidents involving a militant anti-abortion fringe group called Youth Defence, the debate was well mannered. And pro-life groups were at pains not to argue their case on the basis of Catholic moral teachings, even though more than 90 per cent of the republic’s people belong to the church. Caroline Simons, an articulate Dublin lawyer who was one of the pro-life campaign’s leading figures, said it was essentially an issue of human rights. Added Simons: “There are really no medical grounds any more for having an abortion. So if you want a liberal and caring society, you have to first of all ensure the life of all its members—including unborn children.” After the vote, both sides vowed to fight on. Pro-choice groups intend to press the new government for legislation that would mirror the Supreme Court’s ruling in the X case, permitting abortions in cases where a woman’s health is endangered. And pro-life campaigners pledged to fight for yet another referendum that would offer a straight choice between affirming the total ban on abortion or allowing it in some cases.
But until the Dail meets on Dec. 14 to choose a new prime minister, neither side will have a government to lobby. Initial election returns show that Reynolds’s ruling Fianna Fáil party lost seven seats, while the Labor party under leader Dick Spring, a 42-year-old lawyer and onetime rugby star, surged from just 16 seats to 30. With no party able to form an overall majority in the 166-seat Dail, Ireland faced three weeks of horse-trading among parties to form a new ruling coalition. Only then can the country’s pressing social and economic problems be tackled—with abortion topping the list.
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