Irish Abortion Vote Further Tests Generational Change: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- Ireland has long had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the Western world. On May 25, voters will decide whether to dial it back. A vote to change the Irish Constitution would be the latest indication of social change in a nation where the teachings of the Catholic Church once held sway.

1. What is Ireland’s current law on abortion?

Abortions are prohibited unless the pregnancy "poses a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother," which has been construed to include the risk of her committing suicide. Women are permitted to seek information on abortion services in other European Union countries and can travel to other countries to have an abortion. In practice, most women who choose to terminate pregnancies do so by going to England or Wales. Some 3,265 Irish residents had an abortion in the U.K. in 2016, according to its health ministry.

2. What prompted Ireland to rethink the law?

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who at 39 (and the gay son of an Indian immigrant) represents something of a new way of thinking, decided to take on the issue after assuming office last year. In a sign of liberalizing social values, Ireland in 2015 became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by a public vote. The case of Savita Halappanavar, who died in 2012 of septicemia after doctors decided not to terminate her pregnancy, also continues to influence the views of many Irish.

3. Why is a referendum needed?

The law on abortion is enshrined in Ireland’s Constitution, which can be changed only by referendum. As a result of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which was overwhelmingly passed in 1983, the state “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn” and gives the unborn "equal right to life as the mother." Abortion was illegal even before that referendum, but pressure groups pushed for a constitutional amendment in part to prevent courts allowing abortion with a ruling similar to Roe v. Wade in the U.S. There was also a concern that Ireland’s membership in the EU might result in a push to repeal anti-abortion laws. The amendment, backed by 67 percent of voters in the 1983 referendum, has become a touchstone for pro-abortion campaigners, whose catchphrase is, “Repeal the Eighth."

4. What will the referendum ask of voters?

It proposes removing the current language on abortion and replacing it with one sentence: “Provision may be made in law for regulation of termination of a pregnancy.” Essentially, it would give legislators power to regulate abortion in Ireland, without specifying what a new law would look like. Anti-abortion campaigners warn that the lack of specific language means a “Yes” vote could ultimately lead to terminations on demand.

5. Could that really happen?

The government says no. It points to specific legislation it has proposed, which would allow abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy and only in very limited circumstances -- such as a fatal fetal abnormality -- after that. If the referendum results in the repeal of the eighth amendment, parliament would consider the government’s proposals.

6. What do the polls indicate?

That voters favor repeal, although the margin is tightening as the referendum nears. About 44 percent of the electorate plan to vote yes, and about 32 percent no, The Irish Times reported on May 17. That poll suggests the gap has narrowed by 7 percentage points in a month. The referendum is arguably the most emotive issue in the country at present, and neither side is taking the result for granted.

7. What’s happening in the campaign?

The referendum campaign gained international headlines after both Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. moved to clamp down on advertising tied to the referendum. Still smarting from accusations of unfairly influencing recent elections around the globe, Facebook has banned referendum ads originating from outside Ireland while Google has stopped carrying all campaign ads on its network.

8. What will the result say about Ireland?

If passed, the referendum will likely be seen as further evidence of a generational and social change. Ireland was traditionally a conservative country, where the Catholic Church wielded enormous power: The constitution refers to the “Most Holy Trinity” as the source of “all authority.” The church’s power began to break down in the 1990s amid a series of scandals, and today Ireland is seen as one of the more progressive countries in Europe.

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