It was a historic day for Ireland. When the first exit polls were released on Friday night, shortly after the polls closed, the headquarters of the Committee for Yes burst into tears of joy.
Those who voted ‘Yes’ to repeal the infamous Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which outlawed abortion in nearly all circumstances, were estimated by the exit polls at 68 percent. After the vote tally, the final result showed 66.4 percent for Yes.
It was an enormous victory, and in some ways a surprising one. For the past weeks, opinion polls had given the lead to Yes, but with a margin that had been shrinking over the last month, while a significant number of voters remained undecided. But now, the high turnout for the referendum, 64.13 percent, and the overwhelming victory for the supporters of abortion rights are giving us an image of Ireland as a completely different country than the one that 35 years ago voted, with an equally large majority, to add the explicit prohibition of abortion to the Constitution.
This is in large part thanks to the feminist and civil rights movements, which have struggled for years to change the inhumane laws that are forcing thousands of women every year to go abroad to have abortions legally, or to have secret home abortions in Ireland without medical assistance, ordering pills on the Internet and risking up to 14 years in prison.
Since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 from septicemia as the result of being denied an abortion, demonstrations in favor of changing the legislation on abortion have multiplied. The pressure by the movements has led to a gradual shift in public opinion on the issue of abortion, in a country where the ruling party Fine Gael and the main opposition party Fianna Fáil are both center-right. Coming to terms with the change in public opinion, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar and the head of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, who both had more restrictive view on abortion in the past, now expressed their joint support for the abrogation of the Eighth Amendment and the introduction of a new law that would allow abortion without restrictions for up to 12 weeks after conception.
As the supporters of Yes also included a large part of the Republican Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the left-wing coalition People Before Profit-Solidarity, the only ones in Parliament on the side of defending the Eighth Amendment were a few independent members, plus some dissidents inside the major parties. Nonetheless, the supporters of Yes were by no means absolutely certain of victory in the referendum. The campaign for keeping the Eighth Amendment, led by a series of conservative Catholic groups, immediately showed itself to be highly combative and well-funded. The influence of the Catholic Church, though undermined by a long history of scandals and abuses, remains high in a country where more than 90 percent of primary schools are still managed by Church authorities.
What’s more, a number of Yes activists had expressed fears that even in case of a narrow victory for Yes, one would still have to fear sudden reversals in Parliament, perhaps in the form of introducing a law that would only allow abortion in extreme cases such as rape or fatal fetal malformations.
Any such fears have been washed away by a resounding Yes victory beyond even the most optimistic expectations.
Looking deeper into the data from the exit poll published by the Irish Times, Ireland’s leading daily newspaper, we can truly understand the size of the political earthquake that this referendum has brought. As expected, Yes votes prevailed by a large majority in urban areas (71 percent, and 77 percent in the capital, Dublin) and among young people (87 percent in the 18-24 age group). But the referendum also appears to have redefined some elements of political geography that were thought to be well-entrenched: the Yes vote also won out in rural areas, traditionally more conservative, with a solid 60 percent. And even as the support for Yes remained higher among women (70 percent), a strong majority of men voted Yes as well (65 percent vs. 35 percent). The only conservative bastion remains among voters over 65, six out of 10 of whom voted No. They are the members of the old guard, who in 1983 voted to introduce the Eighth Amendment. But today, history is moving in the opposite direction.
Ireland has now taken another step forward in the process of secularization, after the 1995 referendum which legalized divorce and the referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015. The Eighth Amendment was one of the last bastions of a vision of society in which the State and the Church exercised powerful control over women’s reproductive rights. The 2018 referendum could finally mark the end of this vision once and for all.
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