Ireland's Abortion Referendum Is Proving Deeply Divisive : Parallels Voters in Ireland will decide on Friday whether they want to repeal a constitutional amendment that protects "the right to life of the unborn."
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Ireland's Abortion Referendum Is Proving Deeply Divisive

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Ireland's Abortion Referendum Is Proving Deeply Divisive

Ireland's Abortion Referendum Is Proving Deeply Divisive

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The people of Ireland vote tomorrow in a referendum that would open up the availability of abortion - this, in a country that has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Opinion polls show that the vote is likely to be closely contested in that country, where a majority of people still describe themselves as Catholic. Here's reporter Alice Fordham from Dublin.

ALICE FORDHAM: In bright sunshine outside the elegant entrance to Trinity College Dublin, students hand out leaflets asking people to vote to repeal the part of the Irish constitution that effectively bans abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Hi. Please vote yes on Friday.

FORDHAM: They wear cheery colored sweaters with repeal written on them and big smiles. But one of them, Sinead Clark, says it's not been easy.

SINEAD CLARK: It's been very emotionally taxing, and especially even just today when people come up to you and say they hope you die or yell rude words at you - just, like, slut, things like that.

FORDHAM: For a historically socially conservative country, Ireland has made huge changes since the 1990s, making contraception widely available, then legalizing divorce and homosexuality, and more recently, allowing same-sex marriage. But the bitterness of this debate highlights that for some people, abortion is just different.

ANDREW O'REGAN: I'm very proud to be part of the new Ireland. I'm part of this progressive generation. I lecture in university, and I'm surrounded by university students every day.

FORDHAM: This medical doctor, Andrew O'Regan, wants to keep abortion available only in cases of extreme risk to the mother.

O'REGAN: Of course, human rights extend to everybody, not just the strong, and they're there to protect the weak. The most weak and the most voiceless are the babies in the womb.

FORDHAM: A lot of anti-abortion campaigners have made compassion their theme. A spokeswoman, Geraldine Martin, says the health minister, Simon Harris, should give more financial support to women who might end pregnancies because they can't afford to raise a child. Thousands of Irish women travel abroad to have abortions each year.

GERALDINE MARTIN: We've all known women who have felt that have no other option for abortion. We've all known women who've - they've felt vulnerable and lonely. And I think it is unforgivable that Simon Harris would propose abortion as a solution without having adopted any other measures to meet these women and their needs.

FORDHAM: But despite this emphasis on compassion, its opponents say this campaign is tainted by association with the body that has been most insistent on keeping abortion illegal - the Catholic Church. Sociology professor Ursula Barry says the church has a dark, misogynistic history in Ireland.

URSULA BARRY: The treatment of women outside marriage in Ireland over decades was really brutal. Women were incarcerated in mother-and-baby homes, and they were forced to work in laundries until their babies were born, and then their babies were taken off them and put up for adoption in Ireland, England and America.

FORDHAM: A series of investigations into these church-run homes has established that this abuse was widespread. In the wake of that and other scandals, the church's authority has eroded here, and that probably has contributed to a decrease in opposition to abortion. Pro-abortion campaigner and author Una Mullally says this referendum feels like a moment of reckoning.

UNA MULLALLY: Facing up to this legacy that we have in a country that is so dark when it comes to dealing with women and trying to confront the trauma that exists on a national level with regards to how we talk about reproductive rights is difficult - you know? - and realizing how much work we have to do as a society to face up to those things - so it's been really quite testing, I think, for a lot of people.

FORDHAM: Mullally says her parents voted in favor of the constitutional amendment banning abortion in 1983, and this time around, they are campaigning to repeal it. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Dublin.

(SOUNDBITE OF BJORN LYNNE'S "THE BONNY BOY (ORCHESTRAL FLUTE VERSION)")

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