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Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Deciding who has the right to life

Ireland's electorate prepares to vote in referendum on abortion

Special to The Japan Times

DUBLIN -- A familiar sight once again adorns lampposts and billboards in every town and village in Ireland. The posters scream conflicting messages to a confused public: "Babies will die, vote no"; "Protect women and save babies, vote yes."

For the third time in 19 years, the Irish electorate is being asked to vote in a referendum on abortion. Battle lines have been drawn and shots are being fired over an issue that has proved more divisive than any other in the recent history of this nation.

Promises that debate would be calmer this time around were quickly forgotten by politicians in the first week of campaigning last month. "Slithering political lizard," "proabortionist" and "guttersnipe" were just a few of the slurs hurled across the floor of Parliament, evidence of the depth of emotion generated by the issue in this majority Catholic country.

The first abortion amendment, which was passed in 1983, aimed to outlaw any future attempt to bring abortion into Ireland by acknowledging the right to life of the unborn. Although abortion was already effectively illegal under a 19th-century law, prolife groups were fearful that this could be reversed without a specific provision banning abortion in the constitution. In particular, they were jolted into action because abortion had just been made legal in the United States.

Today there is no abortion in Ireland, except in rare medical circumstances where the mother will die if the pregnancy continues. Up to 7,000 Irish women a year travel to Britain for abortions.

On March 6, the voting public will be asked to approve an amendment to the constitution that, if passed, will outlaw abortion in cases where a woman is suicidal. Abortion in these circumstances has been legal since 1992, when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of a suicidal 14-year-old pregnant rape victim that she had the right to an abortion as there was a "real and substantial risk" to her life if her pregnancy was not terminated. A subsequent referendum to reverse this decision was put to the people later the same year and was defeated.

The Irish government, led by conservative party Fianna Fail and backed by some prolife groups, is now trying once again to reverse the Supreme Court decision. The government has warned the public that voting against the referendum will eventually result in abortion becoming freely available in Ireland. "I do not want to see a prochoice, liberal abortion regime in this country. If people vote against this, we know what the logical position is," said Prime Minister Bertie Ahern as the government kicked off its referendum campaign last month.

Justice Minister John O'Donoghue has also spoken out in favor of a "yes" vote. "If the people vote no, then ultimately a limited abortion regime will be introduced in this country. It is a fact that in other democracies well-intentioned people tried to introduce limited abortion, but we all know it led to liberal abortion regimes," he said last month.

The government received a big boost when the Catholic bishops of Ireland announced last December that they would support the referendum. However, all the opposition parties oppose the referendum, and even Fianna Fail's partners in government, the Progressive Democrats, have said that while they support the referendum at government level, their members are free to choose which way they vote.

The Labour Party considers the referendum "unnecessary, irrelevant and dangerous." "The logic of the (prime minister's) position is that we as a society should say to a young woman who may have been brutally raped, we will withhold a pregnancy termination even if she is suicidal," said the party's spokeswoman on health, Liz McManus.

Catherine O'Neill, spokeswoman for the Alliance For a No Vote, a broad coalition of groups supporting women's right to choose, says she is concerned at an element of the proposed constitutional amendment that would jail anyone involved in an abortion, including the woman herself, for up to 12 years. "People who are not sure how to vote because they don't personally approve of abortion should ask themselves: Do I want to see the 7,000 Irish women who have abortions in Britain every year branded as criminals -- with the threat of 12 years jail if they do it in Ireland?" she says.

Catherine Heaney, spokeswoman for the Irish Family Planning Association, which counsels women before and after they travel to Britain for abortions, believes the consequences of the referendum, if passed, could be tragic. "We do not want to see a situation where, if this referendum is passed, that . . . it will take a woman or a girl's death through suicide to prove that (the government) is wrong."

There are also two prolife groups -- the Ireland for Life Campaign and the Mother and Child Campaign -- that oppose the referendum because they believe, by allowing abortion in limited circumstances, it doesn't go far enough. "Don't be fooled, this amendment is not prolife," warns one poster.

Though debate among the politicians and the prolife/prochoice lobbies is as heated as ever, a major difference this time around seems to be the apparent apathy of the electorate toward the referendum. This is partly a symptom of its complex and confusing nature. "Yes" campaigners say that the proposed amendment will protect babies from abortion, and the lives of women who would be in danger if they continued their pregnancy (those, for example, with cancer). Prolife "No" campaigners, on the other hand, say that the referendum only allows for protection of the unborn after implantation, thereby leaving the door open for scientific experiments on embryos.

There are also a number of side issues that are in dispute. The government says availability of the morning-after pill will not be affected by the amendment, but the Catholic bishops say their legal advice is that it will be open to legal challenge if the amendment is passed. The rare medical procedures where an abortion is needed to save the mother's life will have to be carried out in special designated hospitals or clinics, according to the amendment. Some of the "No"-campaign groups warn that a woman living in a rural area could die if heavy bleeding began on the way to such a hospital.

To top it all off, the public has been given little independent advice on the issue. Ireland's referendum commission, which is supposed to inform the public about the issues involved before a referendum is held, initially said it would not have time to post out details to every household about the abortion amendment. Just over two weeks ago it reversed this opinion, but many people received their booklets only late last week or early this week.

"My mam and my dad didn't understand what it was all about until I explained it to them, and I only knew about it because we're studying it in college," says 20-year-old Lynn Lee, a sociology student from Dublin. "Most people just don't care and a lot of people are confused," adds her college friend Laura Jane. Both women say they might not bother voting on polling day.

Dublin resident Christie Carroll, who is in his 60s, also says he may not vote on the day. "I haven't decided which way I'll be voting but I don't agree with abortion. These people are having children so let them go and use contraception instead," he says.

The government is hopeful that an advertising blitz conducted over the weekend will help people make up their minds. Fresh in the minds of Irish politicians is the so-called Nice referendum (on expansion of the European Union to include new members), which was rejected last June by the electorate in part because people felt they did not know what they were voting for.

Apart from the confusion surrounding the referendum, there is evidence that people, concerned with mortgage payments and job security at a time of a downturn in the economy, have other things on their minds. The previous abortion referendums in 1983 and 1992 sparked off fierce debate among the general population, but this has been rarely seen this time around. During a recent episode of Ireland's most popular television talk show, the Late Late Show, which focused on the issues surrounding the referendum, few of the studio audience were stirred to comment on the matter.

However, there is no doubt that the majority of Irish people still oppose abortion in Ireland. A 1999 European survey asking whether abortion is never justified showed Ireland at the top of the table, with 61 percent saying it was never justified. In Britain the figure was 31 percent, in the Netherlands 21 percent and in Sweden just 7 percent.

Still, after the considerable media attention given to a number of cases involving raped, pregnant and suicidal young women over the last decade, the public now realizes that the issue is not as simple as a yes or no to abortion. The reality of crisis pregnancy has also been highlighted by the recent case of an unmarried Irish couple traveling in France, where the 21-year-old woman gave birth to a baby down a toilet. The baby was later found in a hotel corridor dead. The man said he did not know she was pregnant. The shame of pregnancy outside marriage continues, at times leading to tragic consequences.

The government now faces the prospect of a possible defeat in the referendum, with the latest poll showing 29 percent for the referendum, 27 percent against and a majority of 30 percent who say they are undecided. With a general election expected in May, the gamble with public sentiments over such a sensitive issue may prove costly for the government.

Judith Crosbie is a journalist based in Dublin.

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