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Ireland: It's decision time for voters in crucial abortion debate

Ireland: It's decision time for voters in crucial abortion debate
By Vincent McAviney with Reuters
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Irish citizens will be asked on Friday if they wish to overhaul one of the world's most restrictive abortion regimes, that has long divided a once deeply Catholic nation.

Ireland's referendum this week on whether to liberalise its abortion laws will give voters the first opportunity in 35 years to repeal a constitutional ban that has long divided the once deeply Catholic nation.

Voters will be asked if they wish to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution that was inserted in 1983 and enshrined the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child.

A complete ban on abortion was lifted in Ireland in 2013 when terminations were allowed in cases where the mother’s life was in danger.

As the crucial May 25 vote approaches, Euronews London correspondent Vincent McAviney took a ferry across the Irish Sea to speak to those on both sides of the debate.

Each year, thousands of pregnant women from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland travel in the opposite direction, to get a free, legal and safe abortion in Great Britain.

"Every day, on average, 10 women will have to travel alone on ferries like this, returning within the day because of the cost and to protect their secret," McAviney said.

He added that on a daily basis, on average, two more women risk a 14-year prison sentence to take safe but illegal abortion pills bought off the internet.

Ireland was once seen as the most socially conservative country in Western Europe but change has been swift. In 2015 it was the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage by referendum.

The country also elected a gay prime minister, Leo Varadkar, in 2017.

But another referendum is needed to change its anti-abortion laws.

"I don’t believe we can persist with a situation whereby women in crisis are risking their lives"

"As Taoiseach, [Prime Minister], as a medical doctor, as a former minister for health, I don’t believe we can persist with a situation whereby women in crisis are risking their lives through the use of unregulated medicines," Varadkar said. 

"And I don’t believe the constitution is the place for making absolute statements about medical, moral and legal issues.”

Supporters say that removing the eighth amendment is an attempt to stop thousands of women from having to make this journey. But opponents are worried it could lead to so-called ‘abortion on demand’.

Even talking publicly about having travelled for an abortion is controversial as campaigner Janet O’Sullivan found out when she shared her own experience on social media. 

Now a mother-of-two, she doesn’t regret having an abortion at 19 after contraception failed, only the fact that she had to travel for it.

"I wasn’t the only one on that flight that day," the pro-choice campaigner said.

"There were four other women also travelling over and we were all...slightly nervous. And you end up picking each other out on the flight. And even more so...when you get on the train at Stanstead and you’re heading to the centre of London. 

"You all get off at the same stop. We were told you could ring the clinic and a taxi would come and pick us up. It was a minibus and it was all of the women that had travelled over from Ireland going in together."

As Janet explains, what happened next made the journey even more of an ordeal.

"It was tough because there were protesters outside. They know what days that women form Ireland usually will travel. They will travel on a Thursday or Friday, so we have the weekend to recover. 

"So they knew that most likely the women going in that day were Irish and they called out in Irish to us... 'God loves you and your baby'. Yeah, it was pretty distressing.”

Deep climate of shame

Whilst Janet has no regrets, there is still a deep climate of shame surrounding abortion in Ireland.

Recently, hundreds of women have begun sharing similar stories on the 'In Her Shoes' Facebook page but they always do so anonymously.

These stories have helped bring about this referendum.

With the repeal side trying to frame the debate as an issue of women’s healthcare, our Euronews correspondent headed to Waterford in the southeast of Ireland to try to understand the full impact of the eighth amendment.

There, he met two women who both tragically lost babies due to foetal abnormalities. 

One of the women wanted an abortion but was denied it and didn’t feel fit enough to travel. 

The other woman was advised to have one but didn’t want it. 

They’re both now campaigning on opposite sides in this referendum.

Vicky Wall told us her story.

"Abortion...was never going to be an option for our little girl"

"At 24 weeks into my pregnancy, my little girl was diagnosed with Trisomy 18, Edwards Syndrome, and the first thing we were offered was an abortion which was never going to be an option for our little girl who we called Liadan," she explained. 

"We decided to continue with the pregnancy and it was lovely. It was hard but it was lovely and we took time off work and we just spent time with her as a family, cherishing what time we did have with her. 

"Even though it was very difficult, it was a very difficult time not knowing what the future would hold for Liadan, we still cherish what we had with her.”

Visiting her daughter's grave, Vicky said that Liadan died 32 weeks after conception.

“We went on to have her, give birth to her and she was beautiful. She weighed 2lbs and she had black curly hair, and she had long black eyelashes and she had my nose. And we got to take her home, and have a big funeral for her and celebrate her short but very meaningful life.”

Vicky is now using her family's tragic experience to actively campaign to save the eighth amendment and keep the ban on abortions.

"I try to talk to people to let them know that women deserve more than abortion," she told Euronews.

"It’s a violent act on a woman to perform an abortion. It hurts women and it kills a baby. Women deserve better than that.

"We know that there’s a very low incidence of abortion for cases of life-limiting conditions and the other harm cases of rape," she said, arguing that 90 percent of abortions are "simply lifestyle choice".

"That can’t be right!"

However, not everyone who has been through this kind of experience feels the same way.

On the other side of the campaign is Claire Cullen-Delsol who is pregnant for the fourth time. 

But when she and her husband Wayne were expecting their third child, a little girl called Alex, the 20-week scan revealed that she had Patau's Syndrome.

Their baby was unlikely to survive the pregnancy so Claire asked to be induced to give birth. 

Doctors refused, stating that under the eighth amendment that would be considered an abortion. Unable to travel, Claire had to carry baby Alex for a further six weeks until she passed.

"Something could have been done and people knew, everyone knew, the state that I was in," Claire told us.

"People knew that I wasn’t able to work. They knew that I wasn’t able to look after my kids. They knew that I wasn’t functioning. I was collapsing on the school run from panic attacks. I wasn’t able to go shopping.

"It didn’t matter that my mental health was absolutely in tatters"

"I couldn’t function and nobody cared. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t function, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t me, it didn’t matter that my mental health was absolutely in tatters. All that mattered was that I was alive and she was alive, because I was pregnant and that’s all that counts.

"When you’re pregnant, you’re alive. That’s good enough for you... And it’s not! It’s not good enough for me, not good enough for other women and it certainly will never be good enough for my daughters!”

Amid a campaign in which the polls have sometimes looked tight, a coalition of groups have formed the 'Together for Yes' campaign to repeal the eighth amendment by making sure these voices are heard.

Abortion crosses political divides and so Irish politicians have been given a free vote of conscience by their parties. 

Health Minister Simon Harris and several of his government colleagues gave their support for the 'yes' campaign. He defends the people's right to decide in a referendum, though some don't want it held at all.

“I find it slightly peculiar that people wouldn’t want the people of Ireland to have their say but I very much respect the right of TDs to vote in that way and I don’t intend to spend the next number of weeks kind of focussing on fringe issues or side issues," Harris said. 

"There’s real substantive, important issues related to women and doctors in this country and we need to discuss them.”

If voters do decide to repeal the eighth amendment, that only removes the ban. It will then be for the politicians to decide on new abortion laws. 

So what exactly do campaigners want for Irish women? 

Ailbhe Smyth, co-director of the 'Together for Yes' Campaign, set out the objectives.

"Our first job is to remove that prohibition from the constitution and then to look at what kind of legislation we want to put in place and how we can best provide services that meet the very real obvious needs of women in this country," she told Euronews. 

"So I can’t second-guess what that legislation is going to be. Our job is really to deal with the constitutional issue and to take women’s bodies, women’s reproductive lives, out of the constitution where they should never have been in the first place. And ensure that there is proper healthcare policy and whatever regulation by legislation and medical regulation that we need."

Smyth believes that the eighth amendment banning abortion was inserted into the constitution in 1983 under pressure from the Catholic Church.

The Church is strongly defending the ban but there have been significant social and demographic changes in Irish society in the last 35 years.

Whilst the Catholic Church’s power has diminished in Ireland, following the sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups of the 1990s, it certainly hasn’t disappeared. Euronews asked the Church for an interview for this programme but they declined.

"Every abortion is a tragedy, for every woman"

The current ban on abortion also includes pregnancy as a result of rape and incest. 

John McGuirk, Communications Director of 'Save the 8th', explained why the campaign believes even this needs to be upheld.

"We feel very compassionate towards a woman who is in a difficult situation and of course anybody does," he said. 

"Anybody who is human feels that kinds of compassion. The problem is that in nearly every country where we talk about these cases, they are the prelude and they constitute about 0.3% of all the abortions that take place. And the consequence of introducing abortion on the basis of those cases is that you get abortions in 99.7% of the cases where that isn’t a factor and it’s a healthy pregnancy and maybe it’s a woman who feels all of a sudden that abortion is her only option. 

"Our view is that every abortion is a tragedy, for every woman. I mean there’s a reason the pro-choice campaign don’t call themselves the pro-abortion campaign. It’s because they recognise that abortion is something that women use as a last resort, that it’s something that every time a woman has an abortion it is because she feels she’s been failed by society, by a family member, by maybe a partner who’s abandoned her or anything like that. 

"So we’re saying, from our point of view, that we do not want to legitimise and normalise that."

Latest polls however indicate that a 'yes' vote is likely, with voters who favour liberalising Ireland's abortion laws increasing their lead in two opinion polls published on Sunday.

This reverses a trend suggesting the race had begun to tighten as the campaign drew to a close.

Whatever the outcome on Friday, for people on both sides of this argument, it boils down to what kind of society they want to live in. 

Family is at the heart of Irish life so it is inevitable that this vote has sparked an emotive, personal and passionate debate.

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