Abortion referendum: Many minds not made up as ‘12 weeks issue’ is key

Most young, urban dwellers favour repeal, but in rural areas the ‘12 weeks issue’ is key

Campaigners to repeal and retain the Eighth Amendment took to the streets of Dublin as the countdown to the referendum begins.


The phrase “silent majority” has fallen out of fashion in Ireland in recent times. US president Richard Nixon popularised it the 1960s, when he claimed a majority of Americans were conservative by instinct but didn’t voice their opinions publicly as did the liberal minority.

During the 1983 debate on the Eighth Amendment, the outspoken Fine Gael TD and anti-abortion campaigner Alice Glenn used the phrase to great effect.

After the referendum in 1983, the Eighth Amendment was inserted into the Constitution. It guarantees to protect as far as practicable the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother – and prohibits abortion in almost all cases.

In 1983, the majority that voted against abortion was both silent and vocal. As Fionnuala Sarsfield from Killorglin, Co Kerry, a veteran of the 1983 campaign opposing the Eighth Amendment, remembers: “[The campaign] seemed to be going very well. Then, the bishops came out with a statement that said you could no longer be a Catholic if you did not support the referendum. That put an end to that.”

There is acceptance on both sides of  'the campaign' that it will be nuanced, difficult, divisive, and laden with emotion

This is not 1983. The influence of the Catholic Church has waned, and there is a significant section of Irish society who support liberalisation of abortion laws, to an extent not thought possible even five years ago.

Nor is it 2015. Many of those now campaigning for repeal of the amendment were also involved in the same sex-marriage campaign in that year. That was an exuberant, feel-good campaign that developed unstoppable momentum. Unless there is a dramatic change, this will not be a re-run of that referendum.

There is acceptance on both sides of “the campaign” that it will be nuanced, difficult, divisive, and laden with emotion.

But for some voters at least, what’s on offer now represents an uncomfortable choice. The retain side’s position is too inflexible for some, not allowing for exceptional cases such as pregnancies as a result of rape or incest, or fatal foetal abnormalities (which mean a child cannot live outside the womb).

Yet, the alternative, unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks (which the Government has said it intends to legislate for if the Eighth Amendment is repealed), seems a step too far for many voters, according to those who have canvassed them.

Former UCD students’ union president Katie Ascough and Josephine McCarthy at a rally on Emmet Square in Cork. Photograph: Michael MacSweeney/Provision
Former UCD students’ union president Katie Ascough and Josephine McCarthy at a rally on Emmet Square in Cork. Photograph: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

This uncertainty was in evidence during on-the-ground reporting by The Irish Times this week. This reporter attended meetings and canvasses in Dublin, Kildare, Cork and Kerry to assess the campaigns and how voters are responding to them.

On Henry Street in Dublin last Thursday, a middle-aged man summarises the quandary as he ends a long discussion with one of the young canvassers from anti-abortion organisation Pro Life Campaign. He has deep reservations about the Government proposals, and identifies as “pro-life”. However, he adds: “I still do not know. It’s too hard. My only concern is that some poor woman loses her life because of it.”

While some groups have been set up for more than two years, more intensive campaigning, including door-to-door canvassing, has yet to start in most areas. The repeal umbrella group, Together for Yes, is only being launched next week.

Although both sides have been active on social media for a long time, and there has been heavy advertising, especially from the Pro Life Campaign, this week’s conversations suggest the debate is not central to most people’s minds at present.

In Cork city on Wednesday, three young repeal volunteers spend half an hour handing out leaflets on Rory Gallagher Square, getting soaked to the skin in the process. Few members of the public stop; some offer a word of encouragement; others politely refuse leaflets.

A few hours later, a larger group of retain canvassers, led by former UCD students’ union president Katie Ascough, cover the same territory. Again, a few people take the leaflets, but there is little engagement other than one stand-up debate between one of their number and a strong pro-choice supporter.


“Reaction has been mixed,” says John Joe Culloty, a Fianna Fáil councillor in Co Kerry and an anti-abortion campaigner. “Nobody has yet been hostile but people on occasion they say they are not interested, and some people will not engage. Some people question our views but I would have to say it has been more positive than negative.”

Stoneybatter in Dublin 7 is a traditional working-class neighbourhood that has become somewhat gentrified in recent years. Last Thursday night, 16 volunteers from Dublin Central Repeal the 8th, led by Eilis Ryan, a Worker’s Party councillor, work their way along the terraced redbrick houses.

They get strong pledges from virtually all younger residents (men in particular) who open their doors, less so from older residents, a lot of whom hold back or are equivocal.

A man in his 30s argues with Ryan over the legislation before declaring his hand: “Girls are travelling across the water. It’s an absolute disgrace. I do not like as a grown man deciding what women do with their bodies,” he says.

A few doors later a woman in her 60s says: “I am voting to keep it. I do not believe in abortion. I have my mind made up.”

But many just haven’t made their minds up. “It’s a bit early for people,” says volunteer Declan Meenagh, when responding to a question about the 12-week proposal.

The message from the Pro Life Campaign group seem co-ordinated across the locations we visit. Its spokeswoman Cora Sherlock sets out its argument: “What is on the table will only lead to abortion on demand on wide-ranging grounds. There is no way to restrict that.

“It’s an extreme level of abortion that is being planned. Nine out of 10 babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in Britain are aborted. Research done by Amárach shows that only 6 per cent of people are aware that one in five pregnancies in the UK ends in abortion.”

The third common theme revolves around a lack of trust in politicians

Another theme is outlined by Ascough, who has arrived in Cork as part of a nationwide tour. A collage with thousands of cartoon cut-outs of humans (a grapical reference to the 5,000 lives a year the campaign claims the Eighth Amendment has saved) forms the backdrop for Ascough’s speech in front of the small rally.

“The UK legalised abortion in 1967,” she says. “In the first year there were 22,000, then there were 110,000 within four years. Now there are 200,000 abortions every single year.”

The third common theme revolves around a lack of trust in politicians. Fianna Fáil’s Culloty argues: “It’s obvious what is going on, giving power to politicians to legislate. People fear that, as they don’t trust politicians not to open the floodgates.”

On the repeal side, ensuring no repeat of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy is mentioned by nearly every campaigner, as are the issues of dealing with cases of rape, fatal foetal anomalies and incest.

Another consistent theme is the need to stop “exporting the problem”, or allowing a situation to continue where women in Ireland take abortion pills, bought on the internet without medical supervision.

“Fifty-four per cent of those who seek abortion care are parents already,” points out Carly Bailey of Parents for Choice. “We do not want to have a high abortion rate. But it has been around as long as human beings have. We have to make sure that we make it safe and accessible and not exile those people away from here to other countries.”

However, it’s clear that the proposed legislation that would allow unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks has become an issue during canvasses. It is brought up by several volunteers at public meetings on the repeal side as a potential stumbling block.

Policy paper

At one such meeting in Leixlip, Melíosa Bracken from Celbridge Together for Yes says her experience of knocking on doors has been “more or less positive”. “But since the publication of the policy paper [on proposed abortion laws, by Minister for Health Simon Harris] there has been a cooling-off of support and an increase of concern about 12 weeks .

“We are being asked will this open the floodgates. We need volunteers to get out there and [talk about it]” she tells the meeting.

“It is not going to be an easy campaign. I do not think there will be a huge victory,” she adds later.

Similarly at a repeal information meeting in Killarney on Tuesday, 1983 campaign veteran Sarsfield echoes the point: “When you bring up repeal that is not too bad. Where there is pushback it is against the 12 weeks. We have to argue that girls who are raped will not be able to have an abortion otherwise,” she says.

Quite a few volunteers at meetings ask for guidance on how to broach the 12-week question. At the Kildare meeting, Social Democrat TD Catherine Murphy points out that women travel from Ireland to England much later than 12 weeks to have an abortion because of the need to organise travel.

In Killarney, two women attending point out that some members of the Oireachtas committee were opposed to abortion initially but came to “reluctantly agree that 12 weeks was essential”. Their reasons, says organiser Paula Dennan, should be shared widely.

In Cork and Dublin, 12 weeks isn’t as big an issue. Luke Field, deputy chair of Cork Together for Yes, said it did not seem to be coming up in their campaign.

Where the retain campaign will face its greatest challenge is in its argument to maintain the status quo, even in cases such as rape or fatal foetal abnormality.

That no-change scenario could be as uncomfortable for them, as the 12-week issue on the repeal side

Kerry-based campaigner Annette Green articulates what is an accepted principle for anti-abortion campaigners: “As a feminist, the important thing is to support the mother and the baby. It’s a worse violence to carry out another violence on the woman.

“[Women in crisis pregnancies] need a lot of support, should they decide to keep the baby or chose adoption. Society should consider that, rather than going for the lowest common denominator,” she says.

In conversations in different locations with people grappling with the issue – and borne out by polling data which shows that 22 per cent have moved toward a repeal stance because of such exceptional cases – that no-change scenario could be as uncomfortable for them, as the 12-week issue on the repeal side.

Early opinion polls show that an urban-rural divide, and age, are likely predictors of voter behaviour. An Ipsos MRBI poll for The Irish Times on January 28th showed support for repeal and legalisation up to 12 weeks was high among women (58 per cent), urban dwellers (60 per cent) and under-25s (74 per cent).


However, anti-abortion campaigners are sensitive to criticism that the bulk of their volunteers are older men.

“My experience is our campaign comprises a range of ages and a range of views,” says Ascough. “It’s not the stereotype we have seen in the media.”

It will fluctuate between now and polling day

Both sides are focusing their efforts on the so-called soft votes, the “undecideds”, who some say could comprise 30 per cent or more of voters.

Reflecting on the campaign, Sherlock says: “I think it is going well. We take nothing for granted. The reality of the proposal and what it means will mean more people will come to a pro-life position. It will fluctuate between now and polling day, I am allowing for that and feel confident.

“However the Government dress it up, this is abortion on demand and will focus people’s minds.”

In contrast, Field is sanguine and equally confident about the undecideds. “There has been a general hardening of opinion. I do not think the soft vote is as extensive as it was during the marriage equality referendum. There are still undecided voters. If it is going to swing to any side, it will be to a Yes vote.”

Abortion: The Facts

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