Irish Vote Pushes Church Into Background

 Ed O\'Loughlin

DUBLIN — When Irish voters go to the polls on Friday they will, on the face of it, be voting on a single point: whether to repeal their country's constitutional ban on abortion. But there is a hidden question on the ballot, too: Does the church still wield influence in Ireland?

A vote to repeal the ban would also underline the waning political power of the Roman Catholic Church, once so dominant in areas of social policy and sexual mores that, until recently, the Republic of Ireland banned not only abortion but divorce and contraception.

It was only in 1985 that the Irish government, against strong opposition from the Church and its lay campaigners, legalized the general sale of condoms. In 1995, by a whisker-thin majority, the public voted to drop a constitutional ban on divorce, again despite strong resistance from Catholic bishops and lay groups.

Three years ago, on a rising liberal tide, 62 percent of voters ignored pleas from the Catholic and Presbyterian churches and endorsed a referendum legalizing marriage – the first Western electorate to do so by popular vote.

Only the ban on abortion remains, and this week, 35 years after two-thirds of voters supported the Eighth Amendment to the constitution banning abortion in almost all circumstances, a recent Irish Times poll suggests there is more support for repealing the ban (44 percent) than for keeping it (32 percent).

With 24 percent of voters undeclared, undecided or unlikely to vote, both sides agree that the outcome is too close to call. But as anti-abortion campaigners struggle to win over uncommitted voters, they have chosen this time to leave religion out of their arguments, on the surface at least.

"In many ways it would now be counterproductive to invoke religion as an argument in this debate," says Professor Daithí Ó Corráin of Dublin City University, a historian of the Catholic Church in Ireland. "You could argue that the Catholic Church as an institution in Ireland has never been weaker than it is now."

For half a century after the southern part of Ireland won independence from Britain in 1922, the Roman Catholic Church, with the allegiance of more than 90 percent of the population, dominated the new state in areas of education, health, social policy and sexual morality.

But the economic and social revolution of the 1960s was felt in Ireland, too, albeit more gradually. Then from the 1990s a series of scandals unfolded, battering the church's moral authority: clerical child sex abuse, the incarceration of unmarried mothers, orphans and unwanted women in church-run "Magdalene Laundries," and revelations of neglect, forced adoptions, and secret burials in "mother and baby homes" for unmarried pregnant women.

In the last census, 78.3 percent of people still identified themselves as Catholics, but studies show that few still adhere to the strict teachings of the church – particularly its bans on contraception and sex before marriage, and its insistence on regular confession.

"It's only the older people who attend mass and all the sacraments," O Corrain says. "For most younger people under 40, it seems that church is somewhere they now go only for the major life events - baptisms and weddings and funerals."

Faced with this new reality, those seeking to retain the ban on abortion have downplayed an endorsement from the Catholic hierarchy and left religion off their posters, leaflets and advertising campaigns.

Instead, they – like their pro-abortion rights rivals – are framing the debate as an argument about human rights (mainly those of the fetus) and physical and mental health (abortion, they say, is bad for women's health and mental well-being).

John McGuirk, spokesman for Save the 8th, one of the main groups campaigning to retain the ban, says that not all anti-abortion campaigners have religious motives.

"There are people on our side who are staunchly religious, there is no doubt about that," McGuirk says. "But the voters have moved on from that. They want to live in a society where they make secular laws. This is much more about how you define compassion than about religion."

For the pro-abortion rights side, repealing the constitutional ban will mean Irish doctors and nurses will be allowed to help women and girls who became pregnant through rape or incest, or who are denied urgent obstetric treatments because of the equal constitutional right to life of the fetus inside them. A repeal vote also would affect the estimated 3,500 Irish women who, for whatever reason, annually travel to the United Kingdom for abortions, including those carrying non-viable fetuses with fatal abnormalities.

Polls suggest that most Irish voters have no difficulty with repealing the constitutional ban to allow terminations in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality and severe physical risk to a woman.

But if the ban is repealed, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar proposes to go a step further and seek passage of laws legalizing abortion on request up to the 12th week of pregnancy. He argues that abortion pills, which are most effective during the first trimester, already are circulating illegally without medical supervision, and that it is not practical or right to ask pregnant victims of rape, for example, to legally prove they were raped before they can access a termination. Support for this degree of liberalization is less certain.

For the anti-abortion side, preserving the ban means preventing what they call the murder of unborn babies and protecting women who they claim are being forced into traumatic abortions by liberal society, by the "abortion industry" and by abusive partners. They hope to exploit public unease about "abortion on demand" or "social abortion" – their new term for it – to block any change at all.

"A lot of people want some abortion, but not too much," McGuirk says. "The 'Yes' side thinks that if they can focus voters' minds on women in very tragic circumstances they will win. And we think if we focus on what we see as the extreme proposal to have abortion on demand, then we will win."

Asked how "hard cases" like rape or fatal fetal abnormality could be helped if his campaign succeeds, and the present constitutional ban on abortion is retained, preventing any legal changes, McGuirk says: "This is a matter for the government to decide."

Many on the pro-abortion rights side acknowledge that the proposal to allow abortion on request up to 12 weeks is still problematic for many Irish people, even those who are no longer overtly religious. Ailbhe Smyth, co-director of the pro-abortion rights campaign group "Together for Yes," says that while sexual mores have eased greatly in recent decades, Irish society is still quite traditional.

"Ireland has had divorce, for instance, since 1996, but the divorce rate is much lower than in the rest of Europe or North America. This suggests that we do still have a strong sense of family and community here, which is good. But it may lead some to fear that abortion reform could be a reform too far, that it could cause some major social change that people don't want."

Adds Smyth: "Even today, 95 percent of schools in Ireland are still controlled by the Catholic Church, though the state pays for them, and people have had these things drummed into them."

Amnesty International's Irish division also is campaigning to end the ban on abortion. Its director Colm O'Gorman, himself a survivor of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, believes that the anti-abortion campaign's pivot to secular, rights-based arguments cannot erase the historic legacy of its Catholic roots.

"The last Magdalene Laundry only closed in 1996," he points out. "That history of Magdalene Laundries, mother and baby homes, contraceptive bans, bans on divorce, stigmatizing women who got pregnant out of marriage, that's not ancient history in this country, and the people who supported those things are the same people who are arguing now about compassion. This referendum campaign is really the last stand to criminalize and stigmatize women for their reproductive choices and their sexuality."

Leaders of four other main groups campaigning to retain the ban on abortion did not respond to requests for interviews.

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