An Irish Times exit poll says Ireland has voted to repeal the constitutional provision banning abortion with a crushing majority. The poll says that 68 percent voted yes and 32 percent voted against. People on both sides had expected a yes vote over the past couple of days; few had expected that the margin would be so decisive. Of course, the exit poll may be wrong, but it is hard to imagine that it could be wrong enough to call the final result into question.
It’s not just the big cities that voted yes
Ireland, like the United States, has very different patterns of voting in urban areas and in the countryside. The big cities — Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway — are in many ways typical Northern European cities, with cosmopolitan voters and low levels of religious observance. People in the countryside and small towns tend to be more conservative and more religious. Nonetheless, even the most rural parts of Ireland seem to have voted in favor of change. The exit poll suggests that 77 percent of people in Dublin voted yes — but so did 60 percent of people in the countryside. Connacht-Ulster — the part of Ireland that is most rural and most conservative — reported 59 percent in favor of constitutional change.
If these numbers bear out, it will be enormously disappointing to religious conservatives and the “no” campaign, which expected to lose, but not so decisively. The very high turnout — up to 70 percent in some areas — provides further democratic legitimacy for the outcome.
This reverses religious conservative efforts to create a bulwark against secularism
Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion was introduced in the relatively recent past. In Ireland, constitutional change requires a referendum. Religious conservatives pressed for a constitutional amendment to strictly ban abortion, and it was passed by referendum in 1983. They correctly perceived that Ireland was gradually becoming a more secular country, and they wanted to create a bulwark against the introduction of abortion that would be difficult to reverse.
While they succeeded in getting the antiabortion amendment passed, they didn’t succeed in ending the debate. The “X” case in 1992 involved a teenager who had been raped, and who decided to travel to Britain to obtain an abortion — and found herself stopped by the attorney general from leaving the country. After a Supreme Court appeal, she was allowed to travel to Britain on the grounds that her life was in danger, since she was suicidal as a result of her situation.
A subsequent referendum made it legal for women to travel to have abortions and for information about abortions to be provided (before this, ads for abortion providers had been cut out of the pages of British women’s magazines that were imported into Ireland), but the ban on abortion was not rolled back. That almost certainly changed Friday.
The fight isn’t over yet
The vote Friday was to remove the constitutional amendment. Now, the government has to introduce enabling legislation regarding the circumstances under which abortion can be provided. This is likely to lead to further political debate. Some people in the traditionally conservative Fianna Fail party are strongly opposed to abortion, and there are conservatives in the governing Fine Gael party, too. This means some politicians want substantial legislative restrictions on abortion.
However, the apparently decisive vote in favor of abortion means these politicians will probably have a much tougher time than they expected. A narrow victory might have led to more limited abortion with more stringent conditions attached. But now, pro-abortion-rights politicians are going to be much better able to push liberal legislation through.