Irish referendum on abortion has society baffled

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A large section of southern Irish society admits it is baffled by the intricacies of the latest referendum on abortion, on which the country is to vote next week.

The preoccupation with the issue of some elements in the Irish Republic has once again brought it to the fore on the political agenda, with a new constitutional referendum to be held on Wednesday.

The move is intended to clarify and tighten the law so that the risk of suicide by a pregnant woman would no longer be grounds for abortion in the Republic. But the medical and moral complexities of the issue have become entangled with legal and practical arguments over the effects of the amendment.

In general, conservative elements, which include the government, the Catholic church and most traditional pro-life campaigners, are urging support for the amendment while opposition parties, liberal opinion and women's groups are against it.

But so much confusion has been generated that a growing number of people say they do not know how they will vote, or will not vote at all.

In the latest opinion poll less than 20 per cent say they have a good grasp of the issues while just over 30 per cent claim to have some understanding. The rest, amounting to almost half, admit they have only a vague understanding or no understanding at all.

For two decades abortion has been a fraught issue in the Republic. This predominantly Catholic country has used it to help define itself as it moves from a church-dominated society to a modern and more secular state.

The past 20 years have been littered with abortion controversies and a series of referendum votes, some of them hard-fought and intensely traumatic, as the competing forces of conservatism and liberalism have done battle. Although both sides have had victories, none of the recurring contests has ever definitively settled the issue.

Although this campaign has been less fraught than others, it has still produced bitterness and harsh words. Two weeks ago, on St Valentine's Day, the Dáil was suspended in uproar when a backbencher allegedly accused a woman member of being "pro-abortion".

He was in turn denounced as "just a thug" and "a slithering political lizard." But for the most part the keynote this time has been confusion rather than outright confrontation. The usually united pro-life group has split, with some campaigning against the amendment on the basis that it is not restrictive enough.

Doctors and lawyers differ on the effects of the amendment, and on how it will affect issues such as the legality of the morning-after pill.

The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said he called the referendum, after some years of extensive consultations, because a stronger pro-choice lobby was coming to the fore in Ireland. He said he believed the Irish people wanted "to avoid the drift to abortion on demand as seen in other countries". The opposition has suggested rather baser motives, however, claiming he was more concerned with the survival of his minority administration. The campaign was claimed to be a cynical political exercise aimed at pleasing independent Dáil members on whose support he depends.

The pro-amendment campaign is just ahead in the polls, but with so many undecided voters, and a history of last-minute swings in referendums, the result is regarded as too close to call.

The original hope was that an amendment could be devised with wording that could attract majority support, so the campaign would be less contentious. This proved impossible, however.

Whatever the outcome, it is expected to have an effect in only a small number of cases since abortions carried out in Ireland are rare. What it will not change, however, is the long-established trail of Irish women travelling to Britain for abortions.

The numbers have grown steadily over the years, to the point that more than 6,000 women make the journey to British clinics each year to have their unwanted pregnancies terminated.

Tens of thousands of women have made the trip over the years. This has led to allegations that while the Republic sporadically agonises about the issue, in practical terms it exports the problem to Britain.

An Australian woman wrote to a Dublin newspaper: "How is it that this country, which fought for so long for its independence, is prepared to depend on its former coloniser to provide an essential service to women in need?"

A pro-choice campaigner observed: "In a way we are lucky to have England. Otherwise we would be having back-street abortions."