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Ireland: Voters Reject Restrictions Against Abortions In Close Vote

  • Mark Baker

Ireland is famous for having Europe's toughest restrictions against abortion. But voters in a referendum this week rejected a proposal that would have tightened those rules even further. Pro-choice activists, however, have little reason to cheer. The close result shows the issue remains highly divisive, and parliament is unlikely to pass legislation that takes the referendum's result any further.

Prague, 8 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Irish voters have rejected a government-backed proposal that would have further tightened the country's already strict prohibitions against abortion.

By an extremely narrow margin -- 50.4 percent "no" to 49.6 percent "yes" -- voters in a referendum this week (6 March) turned down a measure that would have eliminated a legal loophole allowing a woman to terminate a pregnancy on psychological grounds.

Ireland -- largely Roman Catholic -- has Europe's toughest laws against abortion. The constitution allows abortion only in cases where a woman's life is directly threatened.

That allowance was extended to psychological grounds in 1992 by a Supreme Court ruling involving a 14-year-old girl who was raped. The girl threatened to kill herself if she was not allowed to terminate the pregnancy. The court effectively ruled in favor of abortion, arguing that the possibility of suicide constituted a threat to the girl's life.

The ruling was never incorporated into legislation, and suicide -- or any other form of mental illness -- has not been used in practice to justify terminating a pregnancy. Doctors, for their part, are still unwilling to risk their licenses by performing abortions.

The referendum was intended to end the legal limbo by either nullifying the court ruling or giving it stronger affirmation. But because of the close result, neither opponents of abortion -- so-called "pro-life" groups -- or those who favor a woman's right to have an abortion -- "pro-choice" groups -- appear to have reason to celebrate.

Catherine Heaney is the assistant chief executive of the pro-choice Irish Family Planning Association. Her group actively campaigned for a "no" vote. She tells RFE/RL the result is misleading because of the relatively low turnout. Only 40 percent of voters showed up at the polls, compared to an earlier referendum on abortion in the early 1990s that drew well over 60 percent.

She says that since the vote was held on a work day, many voters who would normally have supported a "pro-choice" position -- such as younger people and city dwellers -- could not vote.

"Many younger people who, say, commute to work in cities or whatever, or who maybe work or attend college in urban centers during the week but reside at their parents', for instance, they didn't actually have the opportunity to vote, because Wednesday was not a good day."

But David Quinn, editor of "The Irish Catholic" newspaper, sees a completely different result. He says some "pro-life" voters actually voted against the referendum because of other issues it incorporated. In addition to seeking to abolish abortion on psychological grounds, the referendum would have reduced sentences on some abortion crimes to 12 years from life in prison. He says if you add in these people with those who voted in favor, then the referendum would have passed.

"If you take the 49.6 percent of the people who voted [to remove psychological grounds as justification for abortion], and you add to that the number of 'pro-life' people who [were opposed] because they thought that what was proposed did not go far enough in a 'pro-life' direction, then you have a majority opposed to psychological grounds for abortion."

To be sure, Irish women do have some options for terminating pregnancies. Some 6,000 Irish women annually travel to Britain, where abortions are legal. Irish law guarantees this right of travel. Irish women also have access to the so-called "morning after" pill, which is taken soon after intercourse and which effectively aborts a pregnancy if one has occurred.

But prospects for legalized abortion in Ireland remain uncertain.

Quinn says any changes will come slowly. He points out that the conservative government in power that backed this week's referendum is unlikely to change its opinion because of the narrow margin of defeat. He says parliament now is unlikely to propose any legislation that would ease abortion restrictions in practice.

However, Quinn says that doctors could -- over time -- begin to test the Supreme Court ruling by justifying more abortions on psychological grounds. That, he believes, would lead to an "abortion on demand" culture similar to what he says exists in Britain.

"Initially, you're not going to get abortion on demand, because initially the pro-choice and the family planning clinics, whatever abortion clinics open, would [proceed] slowly. But sooner or later, we'll arrive at the culture of the 'wink and the nod' that exists in Britain. Because in Britain, theoretically, every abortion can only take place on health grounds that are mental or physical."

But Heaney says that, in the longer term, legalized abortions will be necessary if the government ever hopes to reduce the actual number of abortions. She points out that even with the restrictions, Irish abortion rates are comparable to the Western European average of under 200 abortions per 1,000 live births. The only difference is that Irish women can't get abortions in their own country.

"In the long term, it's our view that Ireland will probably only confront the reality of Irish abortions when we do have legislation which allows for legal abortion here. That will be the only motivating factor for governments to actually reduce the rate."

She believes attitudes in Ireland toward abortion are changing, even if the results of the referendum still show a deeply divided nation:

"In our [pre-referendum] campaign, we just got a greater sense that there are people coming up to us and saying things like. 'You're doing great work,' and, 'I'm voting no. I don't need a leaflet.' That hasn't happened before. And people are willing to confront the fact of Irish abortion."

Heaney says the best lesson to be learned from the referendum may be that constitutional referenda are not the best way to settle deeply personal issues like abortion. She says many people are simply uncomfortable making such personal decisions for others.

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