The traditionally conservative Catholic Ireland has trimmed its sails to the winds of change. The overwhelming victory for repeal of the abortion law in Friday’s referendum illustrates an appetite for change in Roman Catholic laws, a convincing outcome that ought to be recognised in Northern Ireland as well.
The spirited campaign for liberalisation of its strict abortion laws is reflected in the banner flaunted by five Conservative women, urging Theresa May to override her coalition partner, the DUP, and significantly relax abortion laws in the North.
Thus far, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has resisted such demands. As with the Brexit vote in June 2016, the people ~ indeed the bedrock of UK’s libertarian democracy ~ have conveyed a measure of robust disapproval to a profoundly emotive issue, one that has a potentially critical impact on public health and the equation between Church and State generally.
It shall not be easy to overcome the resistance of Northern Ireland not least because the stringent laws of the province cover rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormalities. Yet till last Friday, such risks were not deemed potent enough to be suitably valid reasons for the termination of pregnancy.
Historians will record the referendum as a ringing victory for humanity, for honesty, and for women’s rights. No less critically, that triumph of the human spirit has followed years of thoughtful debate. It is obvious that the people had reflected on the issue before changing their minds.
The discourse was conducted in accord with the certitudes of democracy. Politicians spoke clearly and without dodging issues. The polling suggests that when it comes to questions of personal morality, people in Ireland may pay less attention to politicians than to their own judgment and conscience. And so they did last Friday.
There is little doubt that Ireland has taken a call on the consequences of an absolute ban on abortion and what it meant in terms of women’s lives, most particularly after the death of Savita Halappanavar, a pregnant woman originally from India, who was refused abortion.
Rightly has the personal factor now been accorded precedence over the political. When women and men have the right to choose, they will vote as their conscience tells them and not as authority directs.
The outcome has, therefore, been a victory of the human factor. The result should encourage those men and women in the US who resist the sometimes murderous campaign of the religious right against safe and legal abortion.
It should also offer a ray of hope to the women of Poland, where an authoritarian Catholic government forces tens of thousands of women to travel abroad for abortions every year.
In Catholic Ireland, there was a majority for repeal in all but one rural constituency. The vote has conveyed a resounding message, which in itself marks the triumph of democracy and free thought.