As in 1983, the Irish abortion referendum sets emotion against reason

In Dublin, it is impossible to ignore the graphic and emotive posters plastered to every lamp post. 

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In 1983, the Irish people voted to in effect make abortion illegal. The Eighth Amendment, or more specifically article 40.3.3 of Irish constitution, couldn’t possibly be more ambiguous. It states: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

It took a landmark case in 1992 to interpret the unclear wording. The Irish Supreme Court ruled that abortion is permissible where the continuation of the pregnancy poses a real and substantial risk to the life, as opposed to the health, of the mother and where such a risk could not be averted except by means of an abortion.

In other words, a woman can only be granted an abortion if her situation is so grave that she will die if she does not have one. Even then, the request is not always granted. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia after being denied a termination, despite the fact she was miscarrying, because doctors were able to find a foetal heartbeat.

Ireland’s laws on abortion are some of the most restrictive in the world. The United Nations Human Rights Committee which says the country’s law is “cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment of women”. 

Women who have made the decision they need a termination have few choices. Those who can afford to travel for treatment go overseas to receive proper medical assistance. But for many women, this simply isn’t possible. Instead they are forced to criminalise themselves and take unsafe, unregulated medication which they purchase online.

To those like me, who are campaigning to repeal the amendment, it seems perverse that in protecting the life of the unborn no such protection is offered to the woman carrying it.

Other cases are astonishingly sad. Take the mother who was told her baby would be born with such underdeveloped vital organs that it would inevitably be stillborn or die shortly after birth. She made the painful decision to terminate her pregnancy. But having made it, she was denied access to the medical care she needed to carry out the termination safely.

Yet these arguments are easily lost in an increasingly visceral debate. I didn’t campaign in 1983, but by all accounts, it was unpleasant. Author and journalist Susan McKay recalls the “ugly campaign” that was fought. "The anti-amendment campaign in 1983 had as its slogan: ‘It's life that needs amending, not the Constitution.’ During the campaign, men who had formerly been hard-pressed to find anything to say about sex were to be heard holding forth at bus stops and in bars about ectopic pregnancy, zygotes and ensoulment of the foetus."

She remembers "wild claims” from the anti-abortion side, such as the idea that rape crisis centres were fronts to push for abortion and that women who were raped did not get pregnant anyway. 

Not only was the 1983 campaign hugely divisive, but the Taoiseach noted that “the public had been confused by the issue at hand because it was quite extraordinarily complex.” Anti-abortion campaign material appeared in the most unlikely of places. Stamps depicted a young woman standing amidst crosses in a graveyard with the caption “where have all our children gone?” and “Abortion kills”. Posters included images of deliberately and undeniably sweet-looking babies with the caption: “Here’s one small reason why you can’t support abortion.”

Last week, I visited Dublin to support the campaign in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment. The posters produced by the anti-abortion side are just as graphic as those produced 35 years ago. One poster used extensively across the city depicts the image of a foetus with the words “licence to kill”. It wasn’t just the images which were graphic but the sheer volume of them. Every single lamppost was covered in competing material for both sides of the argument.

Does the use of shock tactics and more subtle marketing campaigns prevent reasonable citizens from reaching a rational conclusion? A few people I encountered on the doorstep made it abundantly clear they were opposed to any alteration to the legislation. Yet I didn’t witness the campaign reaching the ugly levels some had feared it might. The question is simple and straightforward. Just as in the 1980s, it requires people to search their moral compass.

As it gets closer to the vote, it’s easy to see how tensions could flare. But it’s also possible that the pro-choice campaign can gain support using simple, factual, and unambiguous messages.

Today, abortion is illegal in Ireland in all cases, including in incidents of rape and incest. The only time a termination is permitted is where it is considered there is a real and substantial risk to a woman’s life. But as we know even then the right of the woman does not come first. Voters will take to the polls on 24 May and cast their vote. I hope it’s a vote which shows Ireland is a country where respect, dignity and compassion prevail.

Mary Honeyball is the Labour MEP London and is the vice chair of the of the women and gender equality committee in the EU. She is Labours spokesperson for women and equality in Europe.