'Once-in-a-generation decision' for Ireland as country votes in abortion referendum

Supporters say repealing a 35-year-old amendment to Ireland's constitution that enshrined a ban on abortions in law simply acknowledges reality. But in a predominantly Catholic country, voting to repeal in Friday's referendum is still controversial.

'Yes' supporters say a vote to repeal the 8th Amendment of the constitution acknowledges reality

Tara Flynn flew to the Netherlands from Ireland for an abortion. She is among those campaigning for Irish citizens to vote Yes in Friday's referendum on whether to allow abortions in the largely Catholic country. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Twelve years ago, Tara Flynn became one of many Irish women who needed to "go to England."

Instead, she chose to go to the Netherlands — but the end result was the same: she had an abortion and flew back the same day.

Ireland, a largely Catholic country, is the largest Western democracy whose laws still ban abortions outright. As a result, an untold number of Irish women have been forced over the years to do as Flynn did: go to England to end unwanted or unviable pregnancies.

Like many women, Flynn, an actor and comedian, kept the experience to herself.

Only when the recent discussion to repeal the country's ban on abortions started in earnest did she go public with her story.

"It's an everyday story, it's an ordinary story. It's not tragic. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a crisis," she said in an interview with CBC News.

"As much as [people] might not like the idea of it, abortion is already here."

It is precisely the same argument made by the government as it encourages citizens to vote 'Yes' in Friday's referendum.

Ireland's latest abortion referendum — there have been five others — asks voters whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the country's constitution, the 1983 change that enshrined a ban on abortion in law.

As a result of that ban, an average of nine Irish women leave Ireland for the U.K. every day to access termination, according to Irish Health Minister Simon Harris. That's how the euphemism of "going to England" came about. An estimated three women a day take the abortion pill, which is illegal in the country and usually bought online. 

'We just need to accept that and deal with it here'

Ireland must now begin to care for these women in their own country, Harris told CBC News.

"We're not asking anybody on Friday to vote in favour of abortion," said Harris.

"We're asking people on Friday to vote in favour of recognizing that it is a reality. We just need to accept that and deal with it here."

It's simple, but it's not a palatable idea to many who have long opposed abortions here and who cherish Ireland's position.

A campaigner for the No side, which supports keeping the ban on abortion in place, hands out literature on a street in Dublin. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Dozens of campaigners on both sides were out with pamphlets on Thursday in Dublin, often in the same busy spots, making a final plea to voters.

Yes campaigners are in yellow vests. No campaigners are wearing bright pink. Their messages are conflicting but equally impassioned.

"When you've trained, when you've worked in the area of saving life, abortion is life-ending. It is never life-saving," said Geraldine Martin, a nurse and a spokesperson for Love Both, which is part of the No campaign.

She said those on the No side are "very conscious" of the number of women seeking abortions abroad or illegally, but that voting Yes isn't the answer.

Geraldine Martin, a nurse who is campaigning for No votes, said women seeking abortions abroad have been 'abandoned by the state.' (Lily Martin/CBC)

"These women have been abandoned by the state," she said.

"And our government has never reached out to these families, to these women, except to offer them to end the life of their child.

"Let's vote No and then move along to force our government to support our families and support women who are in difficult situation."

Irish government in unusual position

The government is in the unusual position of calling on citizens to vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment so that it can introduce legislation making abortions legally accessible.

It has tabled a proposal that would allow abortions for up to 12 weeks for any reason and up to 24 weeks if two doctors determine that a woman's mental or physical health is at risk. Termination in life-threatening situations would be allowed at any time during a pregnancy and if the fetus has a condition that would lead to death.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, said the referendum marks a 'once-in-a-generation decision for the Irish people.' (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The government is touting the proposal as bringing Ireland in line with the rest of the west — warning that a No vote would preserve the status quo.

"This is a once-in-a-generation decision for the Irish people," said Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, at his final campaign event Thursday.

"It is an opportunity for us to change our country."

Irish expats flying back for vote

The vote has prompted some Irish citizens who live abroad — including in Canada — to return to their home country, eager to play a part in the shift.

The referendum has also attracted opinions and advertisers from abroad — especially in the U.S., where the anti-abortion lobby is still strong.

Here on Dublin's boulevards, there are frequent sightings of sweatshirts with the words "repeal" emblazoned on the front — like the one Flynn wears. No stickers are also a common sight on people's lapels.

There are posters on almost every lamppost.

"Stop policing my body," says one Yes poster.

"A license to kill?" says a No poster bearing an image of a fetus. "Vote No to abortion on demand."

Campaigners on both sides of the issue are using keychains, posters and live demonstrations to make their positions heard. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

In a tactic reminiscent of those used during the abortion debate that played out in Canada in the 1980s and early 90s, campaigners at the Heuston train station in Dublin brought along a loudspeaker to play a recording of a fetus's heartbeat.

"That is a baby that is 12 weeks old," said Angela, a campaigner who would not provide her last name.

People who say, "It's my body. I can do what I like with it," are "selfish," she said.

But a No outcome is not a viable option, according to Flynn.

"When people say you haven't heard out the other side, I say we heard nothing but the other side. The other side is our status quo. It is our law.

"So, we've given it a good old hearing out. We've lived it. It hasn't worked."

'I'm not a debate topic. I'm a person.'

The campaign has largely been respectful, although in some places this week, campaigners from opposing sides have crashed each other's events to try to steal the limelight.

But Flynn says she has been at the receiving end of abuse, especially online, calling her everything from "murderer" to "slut."

She said women would no longer be shamed into silence.

Instead, she has even transformed her experience and thoughts into a play called Not a Funny Word.

"People talk about the potential for life, and the beginning of personhood … but we remove the person who is already there, the person going to their doctor in crisis—the woman at the centre of it," she said.

"For me, the play has been about putting myself in my story. I'm not a debate topic. I'm a person."


  • A previous version of this story stated that Ireland was the last Western democracy that bans abortions. It is not the last but the largest.
    May 25, 2018 4:57 PM ET


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.

With files from Lily Martin