On May 25 Irish voters will decide whether to repeal the pro-life Eighth Amendment to the country’s constitution. The latest poll, published by the Sunday Independent, found 45 per cent in favour of repeal, 34 per cent against and 18 per cent undecided (four per cent did not express an opinion). With days to go before the referendum, this might seem disastrous. But not so, according to pro-lifers. They point out that in February the same pollsters reported that 60 per cent were in favour of repeal. The gap then was 39 points. Now it is 11. They are confident that they will have taken the lead by the time voters reach the ballot box.
There is so much at stake. For decades Ireland has resisted pressure to follow the rest of Western Europe by introducing liberal abortion laws. Indeed, in 1983 the Irish voted, by 67 per cent to 33 per cent, to insert a clause in the constitution recognising the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child. The Eighth Amendment ensured that abortion would be restricted to cases in which a mother’s life was at risk. Thus in 2016, 25 legal abortions were carried out in Ireland, according to the country’s department of health. The number of terminations is likely to increase drastically if the amendment is repealed.
When they enter the booth, voters will be asked: “Do you approve of the proposal to amend the constitution contained in the undermentioned bill?” This refers to the Constitution Bill 2018, which seeks to replace the wording of the Eighth Amendment with the line: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancies.” If the amendment is passed and the constitution altered, lawmakers will be free to introduce a permissive abortion regime.
As several observers have noted, pro-lifers have waged a “Brexit-style” insurgency, presenting the liberalisation of abortion as an elite project which has little support among the general public. It is easy to see why such a strategy might appeal. It does seem that the Irish establishment – in media, politics and the arts – is almost uniformly in favour of abortion.
It treats pro-lifers with contempt. Defenders of the Eighth Amendment say that they are being deprived of publicity and are suffering intimidation, and even violence, at the hands of their opponents. It is clear who is David and who is Goliath in this struggle.
But if pro-lifers win, it will be because they have done more than tap into anti-establishment feeling. They will have also convinced the majority of Ireland’s voters that the country’s reputation for protecting the weakest is a source of pride, not shame. They will have persuaded the public not only that politicians cannot be trusted with vast powers of life and death, but also that every human being has an inherent dignity that should not be violated.
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