Is a Referendum the Best Way of Legalising Abortion in Ireland?

Ireland is holding a referendum on legalising abortion. It has been announced as the first in a program of referendums (others include votes on blasphemy laws and whether to lower the two year separation period necessary to qualify for divorce), all of which have the potential to liberalise the county's social attitudes.

Reactions to the announcement have been broadly positive, for obvious reasons. As it stands, abortion is only permitted if the mother's life is endangered, making Ireland among the most conservative European countries on the issue. Women who don't wish to become mothers must either travel to mainland Britain for a termination, carry the baby to term then give it away, or risk a dangerous backstreet procedure. The possibility of women no longer facing such grim options can only be positive.

As a Brit, though, you'll hopefully forgive me for having some reservations about referendums. When voters given a binary Yes/No vote, it inevitably leads to polarisation. We look back on Ireland's equal marriage referendum positively because it produced a positive result. Looking over at Australia's marriage vote, though, we are reminded what a referendum looks like in action. On the one hand, there's Vote Yes marches and celebrities tweeting messages of love, but there are also posters and TV adverts that range from the conservative ("I've got nothing against the gays, but marriage is between a man and woman") to outright homophobia ("It's disgusting! What's next, marrying your dog?").

In debates, those who oppose equality become emboldened. And while equal rights campaigners might be immunised against such attacks, what about LGBT+ youth - many of whom will be battling self-doubt and bullying - who get exposed to them? Even when such views are rejected by voters, it is an awful lot of negativity to endure.

Referendums are great if they go your way

If one issue that's thornier, more emotive, than same-sex marriage, it is abortion. In this referendum, pro-lifers will go to town. Picture the protesters sometimes seen outside abortion clinics and imagine them spread across towns and cities throughout Ireland. Instead of banners contrasting gay couples with straight couples, will we see graphic ones contrasting newborn babies with aborted foetuses? Will women who've had abortions be labelled murderers?

In the marriage referendum there was a 60% turnout - those who were passionate voted but many, even if they weren't entirely in favour, were not so opposed to same-sex marriage that they'd head out to vote against it. With an abortion referendum, it's easy to foresee a higher level of moralising. It could well be painted as a matter of life and death, of purity vs. sin. When a simple majority of votes is needed, nuance often goes out of the window. People aim for the most basic, emotionally-charged arguments, regardless of whether they're based in truth. £350m a week for the NHS, anyone?

Referendums are great if they go your way. As Theresa May can attest, though, a binding referendum result is sometimes only the start of problems. If abortion is legalised then fantastic, that's that, we needn't worry about it anymore. But what if it isn't? Does that take it off the table in perpetuity - "sorry folks, we asked once and the people said no, guess it's never happening". How many generations must pass before the issue can be debated again? And will women who dare to continue campaigning for rights over their own bodies be vilified like Britain's so-called 'Remoaners' for trying to "subvert the will of the people"?

A referendum is a particularly high-stakes way of settling a debate

Referendums are democratic, yes. But so are votes in parliament by democratically elected representatives, which usually come with a fraction of the furore and are far easier to revise or reconsider. The growing trend for referendums might be bringing change across the world, but it doesn't necessarily do many favours for public discourse.

A referendum is a particularly high-stakes way of settling a debate. In 2015, it meant that one group of people’s right to be treated equally before the law was only granted upon popular endorsement; in 2018, it will mean that a woman’s right to choose will be decided by men’s opinions, and votes, as much as women’s.

Unlike Malcolm Turnbull or even David Cameron, who both called their referendums to solve party problems, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has little choice: abortion is illegal under Ireland’s absurdly antiquated constitution. Like same sex marriage, it can only be decriminalised by constitutional amendment.  And the Irish constitution requires a referendum for any constitutional change.

Irish voters might be best to fasten their seatbelts. Perhaps the real referendum they should be having is whether they need to have referendums.


More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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