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.