Those ready for a modest change to Ireland’s abortion laws are confronted with a more radical proposition

John McGuirk is the Communications Director of the Save the 8th Campaign. In the first of a series of essays on the upcoming referendum on the 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution John shares his experience of the campaign and what’s at stake.

Nothing has struck me more in this referendum debate than the comment made by a man on RTE Radio One’s “Joe Duffy” show last week. Joe had decided to find out what was happening out there beyond the walled gardens of RTE, and had sent a reporter out to interview people on the streets – five people in total.

Two of the five were solid yes voters, two of them solid no voters, but this final gentleman was truly torn. “No matter what way I vote” he said, “I worry I will hurt someone”. “Either I’ll hurt the unborn child, or I’ll hurt some poor woman somewhere”.

I might be a senior member of the NO campaign, but my heart went out to him.

Those of us in campaigns find ourselves in the strange position of appearing to be absolutists. In a binary referendum, there are only two choices – YES, and NO. When you’re campaigning on one side, you have to accept all the consequences of a vote for that side, whether you agree with all of those consequences or not.

There will be people in this referendum who passionately believe that abortion should be legal in certain circumstances, who will nonetheless vote to keep it illegal in nearly all circumstances – that is the nature of binary choice. We cannot pick and choose.

Small wonder then that some people, men especially, have chosen to opt out of the debate entirely. Abortion referenda in Ireland (we have become world leaders in the genre) are not renowned for high turnouts.

For many people, this is a choice that is simply too agonising to make. You see it on the doorsteps – people who tell canvassers on both sides that this is a decision they want to wrestle with by themselves.

Ultimately though, the country will have to make a choice. In this campaign, it is becoming clear that as we approach polling day, doubts and indecision are on the rise, with certainty a fading commodity.

The simplest explanation for that is that voters who were ready to vote for a modest change to Ireland’s abortion laws are now finding themselves confronted with a much more radical proposition – something that, in the words of Fine Gael Minister Josepha Madigan on RTE last week, would “bring Ireland into line with 21 countries around Europe”, all of which have very liberal abortion laws.

The public are being confronted with a truly momentous shift in the law, and the burden of the decision can be felt in discussions around the issue. Previous referendums were on narrow questions – the right to travel, whether suicide was a ground for abortion, and so on. This time, we’re debating the core issue itself.

A YES vote will permit healthy Irish women, carrying perfectly healthy pregnancies, to put an end to those pregnancies for any reason at all for the first twelve weeks. It will introduce abortion on mental health grounds up to viability and will put an end to any rights the unborn child has in the constitution.

The more people are confronted with this vista, the more they have recoiled from it, and the support for the YES side has fallen.

Of course, I would say that, I’m biased. And the truth is that the yes side is probably still a slight favourite to win on the day. Support for this referendum is entrenched in elements of the electorate that see it as much as a vote about Ireland’s past as it is about Ireland’s future.

The core YES vote will vote, there is no doubt about that. In a lower turnout referendum, as this is likely to be, that could make the difference.

But what was a foregone conclusion in January suddenly no longer seems certain. The polls are tightening, and nerves on all sides are tensing. That said, for all the rage and tumult in the online sphere, the debate has been remarkably civil in the real world.

When the differences between the two sides are so large, there is little point in fighting about them. It has simply been about respectfully articulating a case to voters, and hoping to educate them.

Our belief, on the NO side, has always been that if the voters have all the facts about what is being proposed, we will win. The next three weeks will tell the tale.

NOTE: The site rules (play the ball and not the wo/man) will be applied particularly strictly during this short essay series. Whilst all opinion is welcome, all discussion should be conducted respectfully both of the views of others, and the facts.

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