Ireland abortion vote ignites global debate

Religious objections: Marked in yellow are nations than ban abortion.

Should abortion be illegal? Today, Ireland holds a historic referendum on that issue. The vote, which looks set to be close, tackles what is arguably the world’s defining moral controversy.

Today, the eyes of the world are on Ireland as voters go to the polls to decide on one of the most divisive issues in the world: abortion.

Abortion is illegal in Ireland unless it is necessary to save the mother’s life. In Europe, only Malta and Vatican City have stricter abortion laws than Ireland. In most of the continent it is legal. But Ireland has remained steadfastly conservative on the issue. A “Yes” vote could change all that.

At its heart, the referendum is a struggle between the old-fashioned, strongly Roman Catholic, rural Ireland and the country’s younger, urban and more liberal side. It is a test of the Catholic Church’s power in the country following years of revelations about child sexual abuse perpetrated by priests.

Initially, polls were heavily in favour of a repeal. But though the “Yes” side has the support of most of the country’s leading politicians, the gap is narrowing. One in five voters are still undecided.

The debate comes down to these intractable questions: is a foetus a human being? And at what stage does it become one?

Pro-abortion advocates argue that it is not. A foetus cannot survive on its own, they say. It is fully dependent on its mother’s body, unlike born babies. Only when the foetus is able to survive outside the womb does it count as a human, they say.

The problem with this argument is that it becomes a question of where to draw the line. Due to medical advances, babies born earlier and earlier can survive outside the womb. Opponents say that there is one clear, unambiguous line where life starts: conception.

Then there is the question of a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body: As American attorney Sarah Weddington said: “A pregnancy to a woman is perhaps one of the most determinative aspects of her life. It disrupts her body. It disrupts her education. It disrupts her employment. And it often disrupts her entire family life.”

But again, this comes down to whether you consider a foetus to be a human. If it is, should its right to life trump a woman’s right to choose?

Culture war

Abortion should be illegal, say some. If you do not want to raise a child you can always put it up for adoption. Find an image of an aborted baby and any pretence that abortion is not the killing of a human crumbles instantly. All life is sacred, including that of an unborn baby.

It should be legal, reply others. It is unreasonable to compare a handful of cells one month after conception to a human being. And even if a foetus is alive, the “right to life” does not imply a right to use somebody else’s body. Banning it will only force women into dangerous illegal procedures.

You Decide

  1. Should abortion be legal?
  2. Why do you think the abortion debate provokes such strong feelings?


  1. Divide into groups. Each group should research the attitude to abortion in one major world religion, then report back to the rest of the class.
  2. “There are only two intellectually and morally consistent stances on abortion: total opposition, or total support in all circumstances.” Write 500 words on whether or not you agree with this statement.

Some People Say...

“[Abortion is] the only form of violence which is never shown on TV.”

Peter Hitchens

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Today, Ireland is voting on the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill. A “Yes” vote would mean that abortion becomes legal in Ireland, as it is in most European countries. We know that, in general, the world is becoming more liberal in its attitude to abortion. Ireland too is becoming more liberal: in 2015, the country passed a law allowing same-sex marriage following a referendum.
What do we not know?
How the country will vote. Bookmakers make the “Yes” campaign favourites. An Irish Times/Ipsos Mori poll of 1,200 voters shows 44% of voters will vote “Yes” in the referendum, with 32% planing to vote “No”. The rest have not decided or are not planning to vote. However, polling companies have been wrong in the past…

Word Watch

Thousands of Irish expats have travelled home to vote in the referendum. Most live in either the UK or the US, though some have come from as far as Japan and Australia to vote.
Stricter abortion laws
Outside Europe, there are total bans in the Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Honduras, Laos, Madagascar, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Palau, Philippines, Senegal and Suriname.
Years of revelations
There were also revelations about the Church’s mistreatment of “fallen women”, women who had become pregnant out of wedlock.
People who oppose abortion object to the term “foetus”, as they feel using a Latin medical term dehumanises the unborn child.
Sarah Weddington
Weddington was an advocate during the famous Roe v. Wade decision by the US Supreme Court in 1973, where the court ruled that a state law that banned abortions (except to save the life of the mother) was unconstitutional.

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