Irish Confused by Abortion Referendum

Catholic Bishops Clarify They Urge a «Yes» Vote

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DUBLIN, Ireland, MARCH 3, 2002 ( This week´s abortion referendum has left Irish voters bewildered, and divided bishops, politicians, lawyers and doctors, the Telegraph newspaper of London reported.

The complexity of the question is dampening many people´s enthusiasm to take part Wednesday in the republic´s fifth plebiscite on the issue in two decades, the London daily said.

After three weeks of intensive campaigning, an Irish Times opinion poll on Friday showed a fall in the number of committed voters on either side of the debate, and a rise in the proportion of people who say they will not vote or are undecided.

Their confusion is understandable. Across the country, posters urging a Yes vote to protect the lives of the unborn are plastered beside those urging a No vote to protect the lives of the unborn.

Over the weekend the archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell, was to tell his congregations at Mass that the Irish bishops´ statement in support of the government´s abortion amendment proposals «has been fully endorsed by the Church authorities in Rome,» the Irish Times reported Saturday.

A letter of his, to be read at Masses in the archdiocese, said: «The Catholic bishops of Ireland are encouraging you to vote Yes on Wednesday, while respecting your right in conscience to vote against the proposal.»

The referendum has its roots in a 1992 ruling by Ireland´s supreme court that a 14-year-old girl was entitled to an abortion because she was suicidal.

It was a controversial interpretation of a 1983 constitutional amendment guaranteeing an equal right to life for the mother and her unborn child. Now, the people are being asked to roll back that judgment and remove the threat of suicide as a reason for abortion.

If passed, the new amendment would restrict abortions to those deemed medically essential to protect the mother´s physical, but not mental, health.

In the new proposed amendment, the unborn life to be protected is defined as starting after implantation in the womb rather than at fertilization — wording intended to safeguard in vitro fertilization treatment and IUD use. Some observers note that that is a misuse of terms, since a new human life starts at fertilization.

If passed, the subsequent legislation would be placed in the constitution, prescribing penalties of up to 12 years in jail for carrying out or procuring an illegal abortion in Ireland.

The length and detail of the amendment has generated heated and contradictory interpretations from lawyers and doctors. Some argue that the measure would lead to the outlawing of the morning-after pill; others that it clarifies its legality.

At the heart of the debate is what John Bowman, a historian and broadcaster, terms Ireland´s «agreed hypocrisy»: More than 7,000 Irish women travel to the United Kingdom each year to have abortions while Ireland debates ways of refining its own prohibitions.

Along with the Catholic bishops, the political party Fianna Fáil, led by Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, has called for an unequivocal Yes vote. Ahern has stated that a No vote — which would maintain the status quo — would pave the way for a liberal abortion regime.

In the No camp is a loose coalition, including the main opposition party Fine Gael, the Labor Party, women´s groups, Sinn Fein and some pro-life supporters, including Dana Rosemary Scallon, a Europarliamentarian and former Eurovision Song Contest winner, who believes that the amendment does not go far enough to protect the unborn. A number of bishops in the Anglican Church of Ireland have also voiced their opposition.

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