Irish voters go to the polls today in the state’s fifth abortion referendum in 20 years. The constitutional amendment is complicated, raising at least five separate issues, but the most clear-cut effect of a Yes vote would be to remove the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion (for more details, see this story from the Irish Times and this Q and A from the BBC). If the referendum passed, the only circumstances in which abortion would be legal in Ireland would be when deemed essential to protect the mother’s life.
According to Britain’s Independent, the Irish electorate is “baffled by the intricacies” of the complex referendum. The Irish Times declared, “The balance of the mix of [the five main] provisions makes it highly improbable you will agree with each and every one of them.” The Irish Examiner blamed the government for the confusion, “not just because of the undue delay in publishing the referendum proposition but also for miring the question in a fog of unintelligible language.”
For much of the Irish press, the abortion vote was mired in hypocrisy. As former Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald observed in the Irish Times, “While the electorate are once again being dragged into this quagmire, more than one-fifth of all Irish first pregnancies and three out of every eight non-marital first pregnancies are being aborted in Britain, many of them at a much later stage than is normal elsewhere.” Around 7,000 Irish women go to Britain for abortions each year, leading, the Independent reported, “to allegations that while the Republic sporadically agonises about the issue, in practical terms it exports the problem to Britain.” The Irish Times’ Tuesday editorial, titled “Vote No for Honesty,” said that although as a “declaration of principle, or of national values” a Yes vote would please many voters, “Irish women seeking abortions would continue to travel to Britain. Thus Ireland’s time-honoured, hypocritical policy of pass-the-parcel would continue.”
“The Constitution is not the place to deal with the abortion question,” declared Ireland’s Sunday Independent. Instead, legislators should set the conditions and define the terms under which women have the right to end an unwanted pregnancy, and given the obvious national opposition to abortion, those conditions would undoubtedly be strict. The Irish Times editorial agreed: “Framing such law would challenge the courage of our legislators. But it would be transparent and honest.”
For one member of the No camp, Ireland’s obsession with restricting abortion is a throwback. An op-ed in the Irish Times suggested: “For all our progress in the wider world it shows that when it comes to policy on reproductive health, our current government has simply not moved on. It also shows that much of the thinking on women’s health over the last decade has simply passed Ireland by.”
[Update March 7: Irish voters rejected the referendum by a tiny margin: 50.42 percent to 49.58 percent. For more on the results, see this story from the Irish Times.]