By an overwhelming majority, Ireland has voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment to its constitution, which enshrined the right to life of the unborn child and put its rights on a par with the mother.
The vote paves the way for a Bill which would essentially allow unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks (with a 72-hour waiting period between an abortion being requested and carried out).
By the end of campaigning at 2pm on Thursday, most people were jaded after weeks of television and radio debates from which it seemed impossible to escape.
The referendum was called by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, who sees himself as a cross between Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, a man who speaks and acts as if he were created in a focus group. Backed by a very able spin team and enjoying an extended honeymoon period with the media since his election last year, he is attempting to cast himself as the trendy bourgeois liberal reformer who will bring Ireland out of the darkness and into the 21st century.
The last few years have seen pressure increase on his allegedly conservative Fine Gael party to change Ireland’s abortion laws and provide greater legal clarity. Like all good revolutionaries, Varadkar was eager not to let a good crisis go to waste. He could have acted like the leader of a genuinely conservative party, offering a
compromise reform to extend abortion provision to instances of rape. Yet in a supremely cruel and dishonest act of zealotry which revealed his radical opinions, he and his government chose to make the vote a zero-sum game. The public were given the choice of allowing unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks or retaining an amendment that even after subsequent amendments could make it difficult in certain circumstances for a rape victim to obtain an abortion.
A clever ploy it was too: even many Yes voters (those in favour of scrapping the amendment) have a deep unease about allowing abortion up to 12 weeks, citing instances of rape as their reason for repealing. Similarly, many No voters aren’t particularly thrilled at the prospect that, interpreted in a certain way, the amendment and its subsequent amendments could potentially prohibit abortions in the case of rape (abortion is permitted if the woman’s life is at risk or there is a risk of suicide).
But this referendum was never about reaching a compromise or offering nuanced voting options: it was about offering two narrow choices in full knowledge of the fact that many thoughtful people would vote Yes out of compassion for the so-called hard cases, despite reservations about how radical the proposed new law would be.
Part of the justification for proposing legalisation until the 12th week was that 3,265 women travelled from Ireland to Britain for abortions in 2016, with allegedly hundreds more buying abortion pills online. Nothing so characterises a country that has lost its self-confidence as the ‘Well, they’re doing it anyway, so we might as well legalise it’ attitude. This has been coupled with an increasing obsession with what other countries are doing. Instead of arguing the morality of the point, much of the Yes campaign’s rhetoric was filled with meaningless newspeak, calling on Ireland to act like a
‘civilised’ country and take its place among the ‘progressive’ countries of the world.
Despite the No campaign tactfully limiting the voice of the Catholic clergy, lacking any moral authority after years of scandals, some pro-abortion activists seemed hell-bent on portraying the call to retain the Eighth Amendment as an insidious anti-women Catholic conspiracy, aptly summed up with placards reading ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries’. Meanwhile, without a hint of irony, the intervention of the Irish, and indeed non-Irish, in Hollywood calling on Irish voters to respect women’s rights was welcomed and championed by the Yes side. The hypocrisy is stark: on the one hand, the Catholic church is told to hush up because it has systematically mistreated women, at times inflicting humiliation and degradation, while on the other hand the opinions of those coming from Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood are hailed as if they should be taken seriously. If one insists on playing the silly game of guilt by association, it should at least be applied fairly.
The call to ‘respect women’s rights’ was just one of many veiled accusations of misogyny which proved a useful tool in campaigning, with other slogans such as ‘I trust women’, used by the Yes campaign, somehow implying that any man who voted No views women with deep suspicion, and that any woman who voted No was some sort of gendered Uncle Tom working against her own kind.
The idea that Ireland is politically conservative is a mischaracterisation often promulgated by the media both inside and outside the country. This myth should now die – such a radical change in the law could never have taken place if this were the case. There has been a deep cultural change in Irish politics with both supposedly conservative parties offering their representatives a free vote on the issue, and all major political figures advocating a Yes vote. This is despite the fact that the membership of the second-largest, and allegedly conservative, Fianna Fail party voted by a substantial margin for it to take a pro-life position. Much like the UK, it is now abundantly clear that no party represents the minority (albeit a sizeable one) of those who still consider themselves conservatives in Ireland.
The Cultural Revolution took its time coming to this country, but it has now well and truly arrived, shoehorned in at a rapid pace that makes up for its delay.