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Anti-Woman Constitutional Amendment Defeated

Joe Craig

11th March 2002

The twenty-fifth amendment to the Irish State’s constitution was defeated by 50.42% (629,041 votes) to 49.58% (618,485) on a turnout of 42.89%.  The difference was only 0.846% or 10,556 votes which appeared to demonstrate a more or less even split in the population.

The essential purpose of the referendum, to criminalise abortion on grounds of threatened suicide, has now been rejected twice, the last time in the 1992 referendum.  The choice presented on both occasions was widely understood to be criminalisation under the constitution, or legislation to allow medical practitioners to carry out terminations in Ireland where the life of the mother was under threat, including that of suicide.  The closeness of the result and the fact that the most extreme wing of the Catholic right also opposed the referendum (on the grounds that it did not explicitly define the commencement of life from conception as opposed to implantation in the womb) has been seized upon by many to rule out such legislation.

‘The no vote was made up of people with totally different views,’ was how Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, put it.  The Minister for Health declared that ‘I don’t think there is any mandate emerging from this decision to legislate in any particular direction.’  ‘There is no simple answer, people will have to look at it again,’ said Ahern.

The real meaning and significance of the vote cannot therefore be understood without looking more closely at the result.  When we do so we see that the population is divided in particular ways and the claims of Fianna Fail leaders are spurious.

The Vote

First the turnout.  This was higher than the recent Nice referendum when only 34.79% voted but lower than the 1992 turnout (68.16%) which, however, coincided with a general election, and lower than the 1983 amendment (53.67%) which first enshrined an anti-abortion clause in the constitution.  This was important in a number of ways.

The highest turnouts were in those constituencies that voted heavily against the amendment, for example in Dun Laoghaire the vote was 2 to 1 against on a 53 percent turnout while in Donegal North-East it was 70.59 percent Yes on a 33.5 percent turnout.  In general the constituencies with the highest turnout also had the highest No vote, in Dublin the average turnout was 47 percent.  Yes campaigners claimed heavy rain in the west of Ireland reduced the turnout in Yes constituencies but it was more likely the low turnout reflected confusion and demoralisation in the pro-life camp and a waning of opposition.  Many, who would have opposed abortion in the past, possibly felt that it was an issue that should no longer be dealt with in this way.

The pattern of voting indicated a heavier Yes vote during the day but a strong No vote in the evening after work.  The Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan was correct when he said ‘At polling booths yesterday the young and particularly young women, and young men, came out to vote no.’

The five highest No votes were all in Dublin (if we include Dun Laoghaire) while the highest Yes votes were in Donegal, Longford-Roscommon and Tipperary North.  Even in Bertie Ahern’s own constituency the No vote was58.98%.
The biggest cities, Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford voted No as did the commuter counties round Dublin while all the rural constituencies voted Yes.  Many commentators remarked on a sharp urban/rural divide though this must not be overstated as even in many rural areas over 40 percent voted No while in Dublin the Yes vote averaged in the high 30’s.

Political significance

This pattern clearly demonstrates that the No vote was a progressive one and attempts to claim it by the reactionary No camp are fraudulent.   Dana, spokesperson for the most plausible of this movement, claimed her campaign won the vote ignoring the fact that from the start she said she was not going to campaign and did not in fact do so.  The reality is that a more reactionary worded amendment as proposed by the extreme ‘pro-life’ campaign would have been defeated more heavily.

An opinion poll in the Irish Times before the vote recorded that 80 percent of those saying they would vote no were in favour of abortion in Ireland in certain (65%) or all (15%) circumstances.  Does this mean that without the reactionary No vote the amendment would have passed.  The answer is probably no.  Even the Irish Times opinion poll that might lead one to such a conclusion was based on a lower percentage voting in Dublin than in rural areas, when in the real vote the reverse occurred, and underestimated the No vote in Dublin, estimating it at 41% instead of the actual 47%.

The Mother and Child campaign which represents the rawest voice of Catholic reaction and which featured prominently in the reactionary No campaign would have done more to confuse and put off potential progressive No voters than any addition to the No vote their supporters contributed.

‘There is no doubt that for the Catholic bishops, as well as for the Taoiseach, this result is something of another slap in the face.’  So spoke the religious affairs correspondent of the Irish Times while its regular columnist Fintan O’Toole put it like this: ‘For the first time on a moral issue, the combined forces of Fianna Fail and the Catholic Church have been beaten.’  Unfortunately almost all commentators are united on the judgement that Fianna Fail will not suffer from the defeat in the approaching general election.  What we are talking about therefore, in terms of progressive developments after the vote, is potential rather than inevitable.

What Now?

Ironically the immediate practical impact of the vote is zero.  Terminations will not be carried out in the state and thousands of women will continue to take the plane and boat to England.  Politically the right has been stymied and plans to go after the morning after pill now look decidedly unlikely. It is to be hoped that the reactionaries’ split on the vote will lead to long and rancorous division.  However it is not this movement that is the real problem.  This remains Fianna Fail and the church and they will be unlikely to try to force the issue again in the short term.

Rather the No vote provides an opportunity for a progressive move on the issue and the immediate call has been to introduce legislation in lines with the Supreme Court judgement on the X case.  The main forces in the No vote, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have made promises on just these lines but as we argued in our previous article before the vote was taken it would be extremely foolhardy to rely on these forces.

Both party leaders have said that ‘widespread consultation’ must take place before legislation can be introduced which is code for the same delay that occurred after the 1992 referendum and which allowed the right to once again seize the initiative and eventually force another referendum.  Ruairi Quinn refused to rule out such legislation being a prerequisite for the Labour Party entering a coalition government with Fianna Fail.  In any case any legislation emanating from these sources will offer rights on the one hand and a host of restrictions negating those rights on the other.  The spokesperson for the Doctors for Choice group advocated proper relationship and sexual education, free contraception, non-directive counselling and provision of abortion services in the country.

The problem however is not so much the demands raised, although the left backed campaign had demands indistinguishable from those of the Labour Party (no consciousness raising there), as the complete lack of an on-going women’s movement to raise the question of a woman’s right to choose and continue to force a more progressive agenda.  Without such a movement
The possibility always remains that the right will regroup and come back on the offensive again, however unlikely it appears at present.

In this situation the responsibility on the larger forces on the left is greater but once again the same opportunistic approach is visible.  While in the last few days of the campaign the Socialist Workers Party put up many posters in Dublin advocating a woman’s right to choose they voted against this demand being part of the Socialist Alliance programme during that organisations short existence.  This despite the knowledge that a referendum was in the offing.

The abortion referendum thus raises all the same questions posed by the present lack of leadership of the working class and oppressed that weakens both in their resistance to attacks on their living standards and democratic rights.  It is not clear that the good result in the referendum has done much to address this central problem.



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