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In Ireland's abortion debate, a struggle to correct past paternalism?

Ireland’s debate over changing its restrictive abortion laws has been deeply emotional and divisive. And for many Irish, that’s because it’s tied up in a long-standing paternalism toward women and women's health.

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Presiding Officer Carmel McBride and Garda Alan Gallagher carry the polling box for the referendum on changing Ireland's abortion law onto the island of Inishbofin, Ireland, May 24.

Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

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When Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced a referendum that could relax one of the most restrictive regimes for abortion in Europe, his nod to women’s rights was clear.

“I believe this is a decision about whether we want to continue to stigmatize and criminalize our sisters, our co-workers, and our friends. Or whether we are prepared to make a collective act of leadership to show empathy and compassion,” he said this January.

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The announcement came in the months following the #MeToo movement that swept across the West, and the referendum was seen as another gain for women’s empowerment, as well as a next step in a long process of social liberalization in Catholic Ireland. Mr. Varadkar himself is Ireland’s first – and one of the world’s few – openly gay heads of government. He came out as the country legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, the first country in the world to do so by popular vote.

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But on the eve of the historic vote May 25 that many would view as fundamental to feminism, the mood is much darker – and more divisive – than during the other sociocultural shifts that have formed modern Ireland. For those against abortion, opening access is seen as a tragic betrayal of their faith and values. And even for abortion-rights activists who see the referendum itself as a victory, a history of state paternalism and misogyny has weighed heavily. Many women find themselves questioning just how far they’ve really come.

Colleen Ni Fhearraigh holds Saoirse Ui Fhroruisce as she casts her vote in Ireland's referendum on allowing its abortion law to be amended, on Gola Island, Ireland, on May 24.
Max Rossi/Reuters

“It is about abortion, of course, but it is also about something more. It’s about the values of the kind of country that we want to have,” says Ailbhe Smyth, co-director of the Together For Yes campaign group, and a long-time feminist. She says that women are in revolt against the state’s historic mistreatment of women. “All of that is there. It’s the huge baggage that this referendum carries: how deeply oppressive this society has been, misogynistic if you like, particularly toward unmarried women and their babies.”

‘Always has been divisive, always will be divisive’

As the vote nears, polls have tightened. In recent weeks, the lead of the “Yes” side – to repeal the so-called Eighth Amendment in the Constitution that gives equal rights to a pregnant woman and her unborn child, effectively prohibiting abortion unless a woman’s life is at risk – has shrunk. The latest poll, conducted for the Irish Times by Ipsos MRBI, found that 44 percent of voters want to repeal the Eighth Amendment, while 32 percent want to keep it. Seventeen percent said they are undecided.

If Ireland does repeal the constitutional clause, proposed legislation would allow abortion on demand up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, and later in specific medical and psychiatric circumstances. Such a move would bring Ireland into line with most other European countries.

Downtown Dublin is forested in campaign posters, many of them grim. Insults have been hurled. It’s in stark contrast to the atmosphere during the referendum on gay marriage. Hard-fought though it was, there was a sense among many of its opponents that same-sex marriage was a foregone conclusion, and after the referendum passed, there was an outpouring of joy. No one expects that this time.

Abortion “has always been divisive; it will always be divisive,” says John McGuirk, spokesman for anti-abortion group Save the 8th. “On this occasion, should the amendment be repealed, I think you will probably see a great amount of sadness.”

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Neither are pro-repeal campaigners apt to be celebratory. “People want to get married,” says Ms. Smyth. “Women don’t want to get an abortion.”

Central to the narrative for the “Yes” camp are stories of women terminating their pregnancies, many traveling abroad alone to do so. British Department of Health figures for 2016 show that 3,265 women with addresses in the Republic of Ireland obtained abortions in Britain that year.

Actress and writer Tara Flynn is among a number of women who have gone public about their experiences. “I felt it was a duty, in a way,” she says. “These are not mythological women [who have abortions], they are real women. ... The Eighth is broken. It doesn’t stop abortions, and we can’t have a state with a lie in one of its foundational documents.”

History and empathy

Many women see a sexist dichotomy running through the course of history up to the present. Although it has not been the center of campaigning, the question of how Irish women have been treated historically – from the use of symphysiotomy, a primitive form of obstetric surgery, to the scandal of unmarried mothers who endured forced labor in the “Magdalene laundries” – has informed opinions here.

The Eighth Amendment was enacted in 1983 in an effort to protect Ireland from the ramifications of Roe v. Wade in the US. And while it has been fought ever since, momentum dates to 2012 after the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year old pregnant woman who died from septic shock after being denied an abortion. Public outrage followed.

Anti-abortion activists say that the “Yes” camp is painting Ireland as a country that needs to modernize in the name of women’s rights – a picture that independent lawmaker and leading anti-abortion campaigner Mattie McGrath says is unfair. He points to a recent scandal about cervical cancer testing failures as an example of how modern, secular Ireland isn’t doing much better for women. “Women have died and they [the government] don’t want to engage.”

He says the odds have been stacked against the “No” camp by a liberal establishment. “All of the institutions of the government, and the media, have been pro-repeal. It’s up to the decent pro-life people of Ireland to turn out and vote.”

Despite the obvious divisions – which could deepen after Friday – the debate has also generated empathy around a complicated issue, just as the prime minister had called for. Even some who are ardently against abortion have conceded it is a complex issue.

Eugene Murphy, a lawmaker in Fianna Fáil, usually considered to be the most anti-abortion among the country’s mainstream parties, says he has made up his mind to vote against repeal, but not without thinking hard about it. Mr. Murphy says he objects to the government’s stated plan to allow abortion on demand, which is likely to pass if repeal is approved. But he also feels that abortions can be required for serious medical reasons, and wants to repeal the provision in Ireland’s current law that allows for a sentence of up to 14 years imprisonment for “unlawful destruction of human life.”

“I haven't campaigned, but reading what is proposed I have decided to vote ‘no,’ ” he says. “I have some reservations about what the legislation will be: I have a problem with abortion at up to 12 weeks unrestricted. Having said that, I have some reservations about some situations that are very, very difficult for women.”

•Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris.