The Irish anti-abortion side will lose. There’s nothing good about that
The no side were outnumbered by the established political class and the media together pushing the same illiberal view
aoiseach Leo Varadkar – the Irish prime minister – has declared that he won’t be encouraging celebrations if, as seems inevitable, the yes side wins in the abortion referendum. We won’t, then, be treated to the same wild exuberance that met the gay marriage referendum vote, at least not officially. But he can be forgiven for a modestly self-congratulatory tone to his address to the Irish parliament on Wednesday, its last sitting before the referendum, in which he was joined by the leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin. They – the party leaders and ministers – have won it, along with the broadcasters who followed them faithfully through the campaign.
It appears that at least a third of the electorate will oppose repealing the eighth amendment to the constitution, but those voters are not represented by the big political hitters – the sole party against repeal is tiny Renua, which has precisely no seats in parliament. Neither do they have any heavyweights in the broadcast or print media to express their views; I can think of two regular columnists for the main papers who are against repealing the abortion ban in the constitution – that’s it.
Put it this way. Imagine a rerun of the Brexit referendum in which, as before, the big political hitters were lined up on one side; but with no equivalent of Boris Johnson or Gisela Stuart on the other side and no Daily Mail or Telegraph or Spectator either. I do realise that this may sound like rather a lovely idea, but this isn’t to equate the issues, just to convey a sense of the sheer imbalance in the campaign.
Look at the ballot paper: Brexit offered a neutral choice between remain or leave, but in this referendum yes (positive!) is for repeal; no (negative, sad face) is for retaining the amendment. It’s loaded from the off. The church is (prudently) almost invisible in all this, though the archbishop of Dublin did let congregations know that he would be voting no, after admitting the church had in the past taken a narrow and moralistic approach to lone parents.
The received take on the thing is as follows: backward, conservative, religious on one hand; comedians, U2, the Irish Times and #MeToo feminists on the other. Oh, and Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s leader. Let’s not forget her. She’s suggesting that if the amendment is repealed and abortion is legislated for, women will travel from the north to the Republic of Ireland for abortions, an inversion of the present state of things, whereby nine or 10 women a day travel to England for them.
But maybe the received wisdom is just wrong. An alternative reading of the amendment is that Ireland is ahead of the game in acknowledging the human rights of the foetus. Certainly, a foetus can be aborted if it poses a risk to the mother’s life, but what the amendment does is acknowledge that its humanity isn’t contingent on the mother. It has rights in the constitution by virtue of being a human – in the section to do with inherent rights. And that is a progressive thing. The alternative, that a foetus is a baby insofar as its mother says it is, is absurd. If Ireland votes for repeal, it will blot out, annul, prenatal human rights. It doesn’t seem liberal to me.