Voters' Heavy Burden

An anti-abortion protester prays in Dublin, Ireland, June 17, 2001. In the background is the Aurora, an offshore abortion clinic run by the Women on Waves Foundation, which campaigns to change strict anti-abortion laws in Europe (Photo: Rex Features).

For the fifth time in almost 20 years, Ireland—an overwhelmingly Catholic country that embraces one of Europe’s toughest anti-abortion laws—will vote on March 6 in a referendum that, if passed, will allow “all necessary medical treatments for pregnant women, even where this includes the risk of the death of the unborn child.” [The referendum was defeated by a narrow margin—WPR]

Abortion on psychological grounds, however, would have been ruled out, reversing a 1992 Supreme Court decision. That 1992 Supreme Court ruling permits abortion where there is a real and substantial risk to the mother—including the risk of suicide. A resulting referendum failed to clarify the contradiction between the constitution, which bans abortion, and the 1992 legal precedent.

Based on the 1992 referendum, information on abortion clinics in England has to be made available, and the right to travel for an abortion has to be allowed, but a third amendment allowing abortion in Ireland where there was a risk to the mother’s life was not passed. The consequence of this strict law is that an estimated 100 Irish women travel to England each week for abortions.

The referendum has led to divisions in the coalition government. Fianna Fáil, the leading coalition partner, is calling for a “yes” vote. It is supported by four independent members of Dáil Eireann [Irish Parliament], all with anti-abortion views. But their other coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats (PD), are divided over the issue.

One party member, Attorney General Michael McDowell, drafted the proposed amendment. Councillor Fiona O’Malley, whose father founded the party, is reported by The Sunday Tribune (Feb. 10) to have said that she “could not imagine any woman voting yes,” while the same paper reports that another PD, Minister of State Liz O’Donnell, has refused to commit herself to voting yes. The two leading opposition parties are both campaigning for a “no” vote. Meanwhile, the Conference of Irish Bishops, calling it a “not perfect solution,” is supporting a “yes” vote.

Ireland’s media are up in arms. Denise Hall opined in The Irish Examiner (Feb. 11): “[I]t is totally and completely unacceptable that the inference seems to be that feckless Irish women will, if given half the chance, fake their feelings of despair and will somehow manage to coerce reputable psychiatrists into supporting them.” According to The Irish Independent (Feb. 14), “[The proposed change] purports to legalize ‘procedures,’ i.e. abortions, for the purpose of saving life. But it makes no provision for damage to physical and mental health, and no provision for cases of rape and incest, although those who would make exceptions in these instances include devout Catholics.”

In an editorial in The Irish Times (Feb. 12), Archdeacon Gordon Linney of the Protestant Church of Ireland lamented: “What is certainly true is that the deliberate exclusion of mental ill health violates a fundamental Christian view of the person as a unity of body, mind, and spirit.”

The same paper (Feb. 4) published an outspoken editorial, calling the subject “a most divisive political, social, legal, ethical, and moral issue,” and urged a “no” vote: “This…solution is grounded in the clearest hypocrisy. A blind eye will be turned officially to the 6,000 women who travel to Britain each year for abortions.”