The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ireland votes on its abortion ban, a ‘once in a generation’ decision

Signs for repealing and keeping Ireland’s abortion ban seen this month next to a cemetery in Castlerea. (James Forde for The Washington Post)
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CASTLEREA, Ireland — Aine Kelly knows her home town. “The young leave,” she said. “The old stay.” As the 29-year-old campaigner with a stack of pamphlets walked through a housing development, knocking on doors, the locals revealed themselves: They were retirees who favored garden trolls, statues of the Virgin Mary and wee, excitable dogs.

“Hello, sir!” Kelly said to an elderly gentleman who kept a wheelbarrow filled with peat for his fireplace. “We’re here to talk to you about the referendum and what you might be thinking.”

For the next seven minutes, Kelly and the man in a gray sweater engaged in a remarkable conversation, a civil, skeptical, charged, raw and very personal debate, about what Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar this week called “a once-in-a-generation decision.”

The Irish will vote Friday on whether to scrap the Eighth Amendment to their Constitution. The amendment, passed in 1983, gave “the unborn” and the mother “the equal right to life” and outlawed almost all abortions — even in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality or risk to maternal health. 

Ireland, for centuries guided and dominated by the Catholic Church, its culture and its priests, has one of the strictest abortion bans in the developed world. Seeking or providing an abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Since 2013, there has been an exception for when a mother’s life is at risk.

If the repeal wins, Ireland’s political leadership has promised that Parliament will quickly pass a new law guaranteeing unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, and beyond that in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities or serious risks to a mother’s health. That’s in line, more or less, with the other 27 members of the European Union. 

It’s in the rural heart of Ireland where there is greatest resistance.

Castlerea is in Roscommon, the only county to vote against, by a slim margin, Ireland’s 2015 referendum that approved same-sex marriage by a countrywide landslide, 62 percent to 38 percent.

The elderly man at the door said to Kelly, “I was your way once” — meaning he supported abortion rights. “I worked the ferries. I saw the girls coming and going. It broke your heart.”

Between 1980 and 2016, at least 170,000 Irish women traveled to Britain for abortions. Today, they more typically make the journey via discount airline. And thousands more each year — an accurate count is impossible because the practice is hidden and illegal — perform do-it-yourself abortions at home, without medical supervision, with pills they buy on the Internet and smuggle into Ireland.

“Now the pictures, I’ve seen those, too,” the retired ferryman told Kelly. He meant the ubiquitous posters, hung on lampposts all over Ireland, that show a fetus in womb, beside a campaign slogan that reads: “I’m 9 weeks old. I can yawn and kick. Don’t repeal me.”

He said he thought the little thing looked to him “like a human being.” He shook his head.

Kelly kept at him, calmly telling him he should trust a woman to do right. These are women in relationships, she said. Most have children already. They use birth control. “These are sensible women,” she said. They must be given the right to choose.

Kelly stressed that keeping abortion illegal in Ireland just made it dangerous — and sent Irish women abroad.

“We can’t abandon them,” she said.

The man nodded. He didn’t want to abandon the women, either. Then he worried aloud that if the measure passes, “it will open the floodgates.” He said Irish towns such as Castlerea will be filled with abortion clinics, “paid for by the Americans,” to get rid of Irish babies.

Kelly responded, “We’ve got no money from the Americans, okay?” She said the number of abortions shouldn’t soar, but they will be safer, performed earlier in the pregnancy.

Afterward, Kelly ticked the box on her clipboard that identified the man as a “maybe” and moved on to the next house.

“We can’t forget Roscommon,” she said. “It’s where we’re from. It’s who we are.”

A few months ago, the yes vote to overturn the Irish antiabortion amendment was winning in opinion surveys. Campaigners were confident that a youthful, socially liberal, 21st-century Ireland, with its corporate outposts for Google, and Apple, with its European sensibilities and its gay prime minister — and its disgust over church scandals — would rally behind repeal.

That confidence in an easy victory has evaporated.

“I really do believe people will vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment,” said Colm O’Gorman, director of Amnesty International in Ireland, whose group is a prominent campaigner for legal abortion.

“But the vote is more tense, more challenging than many people thought,” he said.

In the most recent polls, nearly 1 in 5 voters say they are still undecided. They are being asked to answer questions they say doctors, philosophers and clerics don’t know the answers to. When does life begin? And how to balance the rights of women and a woman’s health against the fetus in her womb?

Campaigners in favor of repealing Ireland’s abortion ban are focusing on women’s rights. Those against argue the law protects the unborn. (Video: Reuters)

In the town of Roscommon, Emmet Hope has also been knocking on doors.

In addition to being an antiabortion campaigner, Hope is a 37-year-old corporate headhunter and beekeeper, a vegetarian, a libertarian who says he is “definitely a feminist” and supports physician-assisted suicide. He’s also an atheist.

He said he understood women wanting control over their bodies. But “as soon as I decided this was a human rights issue, that made my decision,” he said. “The baby in the womb has the same rights as the baby in a mother’s arms.”

Hope said he drinks pints with friends who work for Google and distrust the church as much as he does — some will vote to uphold the abortion ban, and others will vote to overturn.

“I don’t see the Catholic Church involved at all,” he added. “You’d think, religion, ah, morality being their stock and trade? But priests in Ireland don’t tell people how to vote, not anymore.”

The church has preached against repeal from the pulpits, but the Catholic clergy has not led in the referendum campaigns. When clergy members have spoken out, it has sometimes been controversial, as when the Bishop of Ossory, Dermot Farrell, claimed recently that abortion “was far worse than the rape” for women who have experienced both.

The church has lost much of its authority in the wake of scandals over priests sexually abusing children and the church hierarchy shielding them; revelations about the operation of Magdalene Laundries, workhouses for “fallen women,” which served as prisons until as recently as 1996; and especially the 2017 discovery of a mass grave in Tuam, in Galway, containing the remains of as many as 800 infants and children at a former Catholic home for unwed mothers.

And so the face of the no campaign looks more like Katie Ascough, 21, of the antiabortion group Love Both. In Naas, an hour’s drive in traffic west of Dublin, Ascough sat inside a pink bus, surrounded by posters of infants and fetuses. Asked whether she considered abortion to be “murder,” as many no campaigners do, Ascough said instead, “I don’t think the answer to a difficult pregnancy is to end another person’s life.”

What brought her to the antiabortion movement? Ascough said when she was 15, her mother had a miscarriage: “I was asked if I wanted to hold my 13-week-old baby brother in the palm of my hand. . . . I looked into his face and knew this was a human life, not just a potential human life.”

Outside the Vote No Tour bus, Emmanuel Sweeny, 60, a legal adviser, was toting an armful of pamphlets titled “Eight Reasons to Vote No,” with No. 7 being, “In Britain 90 percent of babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.”

The antiabortion campaigns have driven this point hard, focusing on children and adults living today with genetic disorders, beside posters with messages such as: “I was almost aborted. I’m someone. Not someone’s choice.”

Sweeny said abortion reminded him of the Nazi term “life unworthy of life,” for people — Jews, gays, the mentally impaired — deemed to have no right to life.  He said the upcoming vote would be “the defining moment in our history.” 

As Sweeny spoke, his hands shook with emotion.

The prevailing sentiment is rather different in Ireland’s capital.

At Trinity College Dublin, Una Harty, 21, said 73 percent of students in a Students’ Union poll supported free, safe, legal abortion in Ireland. “For us to win this for women is a first step in getting this revolution going,” of equal rights for women in a #MeToo age, Harty said.

But even in Dublin, there are young people who are passionate about preserving the abortion ban. Hazel Ni hAimheirgin, 24, is studying law at Trinity. She said from the first time she was told about abortion, “I thought that’s barbaric. That’s murder. And I’ve never forgotten those images.”

In her family of five, she is the only one who will vote to keep the amendment. “My father thought I would grow out of this,” she said.

What will happen if her side loses? “I really don’t know. On May 26, we will all still be living on the same small island.”

The debate over whether to repeal the country's abortion ban is roiling Ireland. It's not the only place in Europe where the issue has caused a stir in the past (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

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