Ireland’s abortion referendum

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: A referendum on abortion in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, Ireland.

NICK EICHER, HOST: In 1983, nations around the world were liberalizing abortion laws. But Ireland went the other way. Irish voters approved a pro-life constitutional amendment. It’s known as the 8th Amendment, and it provides equal legal protection to an unborn child and her mother.

On May 25th, Ireland votes again. This time, the question is whether to repeal this amendment and give back the power to government to regulate abortion. For its part, the government has proposed a law that would permit abortion under any circumstances up to twelve weeks, and after that point for certain cases.

WORLD Radio’s Jenny Lind Schmitt has just returned from a reporting trip to Ireland. She’s back in this country and she joins me now on the line from Richmond, Virginia.

And Jenny, now, after 35 years of this amendment being on the books in Ireland, why do you think this issue has come to a head right now?

JENNY SCHMITT, REPORTER: Well, there has been ongoing pressure from certain sectors for abortion on demand in Ireland, but the last ten years have seen a stronger push. And then in 2012, there was a pregnant woman named Savita Halappanavar, who died, unfortunately, in a hospital in Galway of complications from a septic miscarriage. And investigations afterwards found that the hospital had been negligent in providing some of the basic care that would have caught the sepsis in time in time to save her life. But, unfortunately, by that time her story was already really being pushed in the media as a reason that there needed to be freer access to abortion.

Jenny, tell me what the 8th Amendment does in a very practical sense?

SCHMITT: The amendment gives equal rights under the law to both a mother and the unborn child. So that effectively bans abortion. So many women in a crisis pregnancy leave the country, or “travel” to the UK for an abortion. But because to do that there’s kind of this built in delay, many women realize that’s not a choice they want to make.

And when I was in Limerick, I met Mary Kenny and I got to hear her wonderful story. She’s a woman who became pregnant in the middle of college, and she was determined to go to the UK to have an abortion. But when she made plans she realized her passport had expired. So she ordered abortion drugs online, and they never came. And a colleague heard her story, and encouraged Mary to see that this new life was a gift, and that she and her baby were going to be okay. It was someone who came alongside and said, “This is going to be okay.” And then soon after she had an ultrasound, and that totally changed everything. And what Mary says is “The time it took me to plan an abortion in England was the time I needed to change my mind.” And so she credits the 8th Amendment with saving the life of her 4-year-old daughter Hollie.

Jenny, you mentioned young women who want abortions traveling to Britain or elsewhere, so what about that argument that Ireland is simply exporting its problem?

SCHMITT: Well, a report by the Pro Life Campaign, which is one of the big pro-life groups in Ireland, credits the 8th Amendment with saving at least 100,000 lives in Ireland. So while there are those that leave, the law as it stands has definitely had a positive effect, and the advocates for keeping the law argue that the solution for women in a crisis pregnancy is support and care, not abortion. In fact, up to now and continuing, Ireland has one of the lowest maternal death rates in the world. So, there’s really a history of good maternal care, and so they’re saying we need to expand on that and not push abortions. And here’s Mary Kenny:

KENNY: It’s crime to say oh, well if a women wants to travel, well she’ll travel. Well, then how come so many lives have been saved by the 8th Amendment then? Because it gives you time to think. I know, I can say with almost certainty. When I found out I was pregnant, the hospital would’ve been only a 7-minute drive from where I found out I was pregnant, and I can honestly say, I could’ve gotten into the car, and I would’ve been…. And like, if it wasn’t for the 8th Amendment, if it wasn’t for our life-saving law, which is what it is, more than likely, Hollie would not be here today. 

Well, Jenny, you started talking about pro-life groups in Ireland. What are they doing in the days up to this referendum vote?

SCHMITT: Well, there are several very active pro-life groups both secular and religiously affiliated, and obviously this upcoming vote has galvanized them. There’s a strong campaign across the organizations called Love Both, meaning love both the mother and the baby, Save the 8th. On March 10th in Dublin there was a big nationwide rally which brought together 100,000 people, which is quite a large number for Ireland. There are ongoing local rallies, and leafleting campaigns in the streets. Because radio and television ads are not allowed, there are posters up all over the countryside, along the roadsides, and there’s billboards up in cities like Dublin and Galway. And they’re really using technology as an argument with photos and ultrasounds on the posters. And one big billboard, huge, that I saw in Dublin that was very powerful was a photo of an 11-week-old unborn baby, with the simple caption: One of Us. 

Of course there are also plenty of Yes posters, especially in the cities. And talking with people it does seem like it’s become a hot button issue like it is here in the States. And volunteers told me that this kind of divide on the issue is new for Ireland.

WORLD correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt. She’s back from a reporting trip to Ireland. And Jenny, it sounds like spring has sprung there in Virginia. Thanks very much.

(Photo/Jenny Schmitt)

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