What May 25 referendums comes down to is whether you believe "a woman has the absolute right to decide what happens to and within her own body" Ireland will have its say... after a long slog.
On Friday of this week, Ireland will vote in the referendum on abortion and the yes side looks set to win. A Sunday Times opinion poll published last weekend underlined this, with 52 percent saying they will vote yes, 24 percent no, undecideds at 19 percent and five percent saying they will not vote. If that is accurate and remains the situation up to Friday, then the yes side, which seeks to overturn the Eighth Amendment which bans abortion, has an unbeatable lead.
The poll analyst pointed out that the core support for both the yes and no sides has been pretty solid over their two previous opinion polls in recent months. They don't expect any surprise on Friday and say it's almost certain that Ireland will vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment that stops abortion being available here. So it's all over bar the shouting -- and there will be lots of that! Or so it seems. Except that it's not that simple.
At the very least the margin of the predicted yes victory remains uncertain and may be far smaller than suggested in the poll. How do we know this? Experience, and a sixth sense about the public mood.
If the margin does turn out to be very tight, the issue will be even more divisive and emotional in the coming months as legislation to bring in abortion here is formulated, introduced and debated. Friday's referendum is simply to repeal the constitutional bar to abortion; detailed legislation on how abortion here might work is yet to come.
Some people on the no side are insisting they can still snatch a victory on Friday, although that seems a very remote chance given the numbers in the Sunday Times poll. However, that weekend poll is not the only indicator.
Earlier last week The Irish Times published its latest poll which had yes at 44 percent, no at 32 percent, undecided at 17 percent, and seven percent saying they were not going to vote. Significantly, that showed a fall in support for yes of three percent and a rise in support for no of four percent in comparison with the previous Irish Times poll a month earlier. And we know that other recent polls have also shown a tightening of the gap. So it's far from certain that this is over yet. Despite this, the margin that the yes side has across all the polls makes it unlikely that the no side will edge ahead in the vote at the end of this week.
But predicting the outcome of referendums is notoriously difficult, and the sensitive, personal nature of this one makes it even harder.
It's quite possible that a significant number of the undecided are in reality people who have decided to vote no but feel embarrassed to say so to pollsters because they don't want to be seen as anti-women, uncaring, old-fashioned, religious zealots, etc. That is understandable. In the last few weeks the no side has been derided and treated with borderline contempt at times by strident young campaigners.
And that could mean that some of those who are leaning towards a no vote are now keeping their views to themselves, particularly older, rural, church-going people. Some of them might decide to vote no simply because they don't like being told how to think by the media, the political establishment, and the liberal Dublin elite. Apart from that, there is a more fundamental reason why the no side could do better than expected. It's not just because they may react to being portrayed as arch-conservative knuckle draggers. Far more important has been the failure on the yes side to treat their moral qualms about abortion with respect and to deal with their questions and concerns seriously. This has been evident in particular in the way the yes side has concentrated on so-called "hard cases" during the campaign -- incest, rape, and fatal fetal abnormality. But the reality is that the vast majority of abortions are not related to such hard cases.
The most recent figures for Irish women who had abortions in Britain show that in that year (2016) over 98 percent of them were the termination of ordinary healthy pregnancies, not because of incest, rape or fatal fetal abnormality but because the women did not want to have the baby. Despite this, media interviews with leaders of the no campaign in recent weeks have virtually ignored this reality. Instead, interviewers have concentrated almost exclusively on such hard cases, with the following kind of questions:
Are you saying that a young teenager who is the victim of incest or rape must be forced to continue with the pregnancy? Are you saying that a woman who has been told that the fetus she is carrying will die soon after birth cannot have an abortion? Of course, such cases are heart-rending, but this kind of questioning ignores the wider reality of abortion as outlined above. Almost all abortions (over 98 percent) happen because the woman does not want to continue with the pregnancy for her own reasons, not for other extreme reasons. This dodging of the central moral issue in abortion has done nothing to convince people on the no side to change their view. Nor does the portrayal of Ireland as a backward swamp, sadly out of line with other modern countries. Abortion may be legal in other countries, but the same conflicted moral concerns exist there even if they are swept under the carpet and never mentioned. Rather than honestly debating the central question -- the extent of the right to life of the unborn -- the yes side has ignored it or tried to deny the statistics from other countries.
One of the first no posters to go up at the start of the campaign said that one in five babies are aborted in England. This was ridiculed by the yes side despite the fact that it is accurate, based on comparing the official figures over the past three years for births and abortions in England, excluding miscarriages. As a matter of interest, the one in five figure is roughly the same in France.
Even for liberals, if they are being honest, the scale of abortion in the developed world today has to be one of the great moral dilemmas of the age. There may be a wall of silence on it internationally, but that does not mean that the debate of the past few weeks in Ireland has not been valid or worthwhile.
Our misfortune -- if it is one -- is that we are one of the very few countries left in the western world where general abortion is still illegal and where such a public debate was, therefore, necessary because of this referendum. The arguments for change here have been made again and again in recent years. One of the most compelling is that Irish women already have abortions -- over 3,000 of them a year -- but we force them to travel, mainly to Britain, to do so. The hypocrisy involved is shocking, as is the ordeal we force them through, often alone and afraid in unfamiliar cities in the U.K. Added to that recently is the fact that thousands of women here are now using abortion pills at home which they buy online (although importing such pills can carry a 14-year jail sentence if they are caught and prosecuted). Using these pills without any medical supervision can be risky. There are also the sad cases we know about, where the equal right to life of the unborn which was written into the Constitution in the 1983 referendum has limited the treatment offered to women here. In some cases, like that of Savita Halappanavar, the limitation and consequent delay proved fatal. These and many other valid arguments have been used by the yes side in this campaign. But probably the most important aspect of the yes campaign is the one that covers the 98 percent of abortions which happen not because of hard cases like rape, etc., but because the woman does not feel able to continue with what is a normal healthy pregnancy.
It may be unplanned, too soon in her life, too disruptive, the result of a one night stand, very difficult for economic or family reasons, etc. There are many, many reasons why a woman may feel she is in a crisis pregnancy which cannot be continued, personal reasons which may make sense only to her.
The fundamental argument made by the yes side is that her view is the only one that matters, whatever the circumstances of her pregnancy.
Which is why the slogan used on most yes posters has been A Woman's Right to Choose. It is also why we have seen so many yes campaigners -- mostly younger women -- carrying banners with slogans like Stop Policing My Body, or Get Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries.
That's what it all comes down to in the end -- whether a woman has the absolute right to decide what happens to and within her own body. Accepting the woman's right to choose in no way suggests that abortion is an easy decision for women or that many do not feel conflicted or guilty about having an abortion. Instead, it is an acceptance that they must be allowed to make that decision without being limited or prevented from doing so by the state or anyone else. It is a recognition that ultimately the choice must be theirs, and theirs alone. This acceptance does not mean that a lot of people on the yes side will find voting easy. Many will vote yes with a heavy heart and feeling conflicted. Which is fitting in a way because that is exactly how many women with unwanted pregnancies feel when making their decision.