Irish liberals head off change to abortion law

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An attempt by the Irish government to further tighten the country's already strict anti-abortion laws was rejected yesterday by the narrowest of margins in a constitutional referendum.

Proposals that included removing the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion were defeated by 50.42 per cent to 49.58 per cent. With one-and-a-quarter million votes cast across the republic, the proposals were defeated by just 10,500 votes.

Following a confusing campaign, the result portrayed a country as deeply divided as ever on a contentious issue that has been the subject of a number of referendums.

More arguably, it may also have demonstrated that the Irish Republic is continuing to undergo a process of liberalisation and showing increasing tolerance of attitudes that are at odds with the teachings of the Catholic church. The rejection will be viewed as a victory for liberal opinion.

In general, conservative elements, such as the Catholic church, supported the amendment while more liberal elements opposed it.

The result means that the defeat of the amendment will, in wider terms, be viewed as a significant setback for traditionalists, while others will see the outcome as a move towards a more modern and more secular Ireland.

Both the church and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, expressed disappointment at the result that, in effect, will leave the present laws on abortion, which many view as unclear and unsatisfactory, exactly as they are.

With abortions remaining a rarity in the republic, more than 6,000 Irish women a year travel to British abortion clinics each year to have their pregnancies terminated. That will continue as before.

Voting patterns followed a familiar but striking pattern in which the cities and larger towns voted decisively against the proposal. That was the case in Cork, Limerick and Waterford and – most of all – in Dublin, with the capital registering very strong opposition to the amendment.

Its supporters were mostly to be found in rural areas in the west of the country, with Donegal in particular voting 70 per cent in favour of the amendment. By contrast, prosperous Dun Laoghaire, just to the south of Dublin, voted almost 70 per cent against.

Any further moves on abortion will await the next Irish general election, which is expected in May, following which a new government will turn with some trepidation to what increasingly looks like the impossible task of finding consensus on the issue.

In one irony, an MEP, Rosemary Scallan, who was better known as the singer Dana and is a prominent anti-abortion campaigner, may have been crucial in the defeat of the amendment. She campaigned against it on the grounds that it did not go far enough.

Bertie Ahern's prospects of remaining Taoiseach may have only been marginally damaged by the result, which is seen as a setback for him but not a political disaster.

Mr Ahern said yesterday: "To think that you can pick up this in some easy way, I'm afraid it's just not like that.

"I'm disappointed but I'm a democrat, that's the decision. It will be for the next government to study and understand and study the results and implications of this."