A specter is haunting the Irish abortion referendum, which goes before the voters this Friday. Two specters, actually: Brexit and Trump. Since January, polls have shown majority support for “Yes,” i.e., repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively bans all abortion, except to save the pregnant woman’s life. True, the polls have tightened over the last six months, but the latest, and probably last, polls have “Yes” firmly in the lead (56 to 27 percent according to one; 52 to 24 according to another). It’s the 14–17 percent of the population who say they are undecided (plus the 3 percent who refuse to answer) that are the problem. Have those people really not made up their minds on an issue about which every possible aspect has been discussed, every point scored, for months, indeed years? Or do they just not want to say? And if it’s the latter, are they quiet about their Yes or their No? And, most important, which side in the end will come out to vote? “Yes” campaigners worry that young men, who would be for repeal, just don’t care enough to cast a ballot. “It’s nothing to do with me,” is one refrain (someone needs to tell these poor boys the facts of life). “I’ll let the women decide.”
As in the United States, there’s an urban/rural divide: Dublin is young, cosmopolitan, (more) multiethnic and liberal, while the countryside is older, Catholic, conservative. There’s an age divide as well, with “Yes” strongest among 18- to 24-year-olds and “No” strongest among those over 65. I’ve met a lot of “Yes” voters with parents voting “No” (“Best not disturb the bear,” said one young man handing out “Yes” leaflets on Grafton Street, Dublin’s main shopping street, when I asked him if he had discussed the referendum with his father. After many months of filial nudging, though, he thought his mother was coming round). But I haven’t met any “Yes” parents with kids who’ll vote against. Still, people are suspicious of polls these days (one worried “Yes” campaigner even cited the disputed Bradley Effect, in which people lie to pollsters to seem more liberal than they are). “Yes” campaigners definitely fear a last-minute surge-from-nowhere of “No” votes. I’ve pointed out many times to Yes-minded friends that Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million: If he was No, he would have gone down in flames. Somehow they are not reassured. There’s Brexit, after all—that was a real surprise, with the most support from exactly the parts of the country that received the most help from the EU. The prospect of masses of old rural Catholics marching to the polls to keep Ireland pure and holy is the local version of the “populism” that has swept so much of Europe.
The church has played a big role in the debate, of course, and I’ll have more to say about that another time. But as with both Trump and Brexit there’s a way in which “No” seems to attract people who are just generally pissed off at the government. Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach (prime minister), supports Repeal, as do the heads of all the major political parties. Unlike in the United States, Ireland’s political leadership seems—finally—to understand that an outright ban on abortion doesn’t fit with modern times But it doesn’t help that the government is currently embroiled in the horrific “Cervical Check” scandal in which around 200 women were not told in a timely way that their negative tests for cervical cancer were inaccurate. Now some of those women are dying. When the minister for health, Simon Harris, goes on TV wearing a “Yes” button and talks about the cervical check scandal, it’s a bad look for Repeal. Oh, so that’s what you mean when you say you care about women’s health! Never mind that Simon Harris is not to blame for the disaster, which long predated the current government—it connects Repeal with the many failures of the Irish political class, which has been trading power back and forth for years with little to show for it for ordinary people. “I’m voting No because I’m sick of being asked,” one older man told me. (He was referring to four previous abortion referenda, in 1992 and 2002, arising out of judicial cases.) Some people are just bloody-minded—or want you to think they are.
Adding a further wrinkle, the government has said that if “Yes” wins, it will move to make abortion legal for any reason for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This has opened up a whole new battlefront: The strategy of Together for Yes, the umbrella group for all the “Yes” campaigns, has been to attack the Eighth Amendment by focusing on the so-called hard cases: fatal fetal abnormality, rape, incest, serious threats to the mother’s health. Because the amendment is part of the Constitution, these cannot be exempted from the general ban. This is the approach their research shows works best with the undecided. Thus, they’ve emphasized the cruelty of forcing women to go to the UK to end doomed pregnancies—several such women have bravely described their heartbreaking experiences in the media, leaving supporters of the Eghth Amendment in the position of arguing that delivering a full-term dead or dying baby is a meaningful and loving experience. For some women it may indeed be so—several have told their stories—but it’s hard to argue for forcing such a grueling experience on every woman, regardless of her circumstances or wishes or feelings or sanity. (Cue the “No” campaigners’ argument that mental health is not really part of health.) Now, at the next-to-last minute, Repealers have to deal with the ancient good abortion/bad abortion debate. Legalizing abortion for the extreme cases is one thing, but you can’t just let irresponsible women kill their healthy babies, says the No campaign. “In England and Wales 97% of abortions are permitted on…mental grounds, meaning that the babies aborted are perfectly healthy,” they claim.
There’s an answer to that: Thousands of Irish women are already having abortions. Every year some 3,500 take the plane or ferry to England or Wales, and nearly 2,000 stay home and use abortion pills, according to Women on Web, a website that sells these pills. The former is completely legal; the latter risks a 14-year prison sentence. (That would never happen, says “No.” Don’t be so sure, “Yes” replies: Look at Northern Ireland, where abortion is completely illegal—one woman was prosecuted for taking pills, and another is currently being prosecuted for helping her 15-year-old daughter procure them.) But the fact that Irish women are already having abortions cuts both ways: Repeal to acknowledge reality—or keep the Eighth, because the status quo is working. It’s a truism that undecideds tend to vote for the existing order, rather than risk the unpredictable. “We want them not to think of repeal as change,” Ailbhe Smyth, co-director of Together for Yes, told me. “We’ve already changed. We already have abortion.”
On Friday we’ll find out how persuasive that argument is.