Ireland, Enthusiastic About Gay Rights, Frets Over Abortion

An anti-abortion rally in Dublin this month. Polls for the referendum on Friday have narrowed so tightly that “yes” and “no” campaigners are not able to predict a victory.

CARRIGTWOHILL, Ireland — When it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, Judy Donnelly has been something of a rebel over the years. Like much of Ireland, she supported contraception, voted in a referendum to legalize divorce and, three years ago, backed same-sex marriage.

That last vote was joyously celebrated around the country and the world, placing Ireland, which elected its first gay prime minister last year, at the vanguard of what many called a social revolution.

But when it comes to the historic decision on legalizing abortion, which will be put to the nation on Friday, Ms. Donnelly says she will vote no, as will enough of her countrymen and women, including lawmakers across the political divide, to throw the referendum result into doubt. Polls for the May 25 vote have narrowed so tightly in recent weeks that “yes” and “no” campaigners are not able to confidently predict a victory.

“It’s just not the same,” said Ms. Donnelly, 46, who works in a pub in Carrigtwohill. “It’s about values and morals.”

Even if Ireland is becoming more culturally liberal in many respects, opposition to abortion is deeply ingrained, as many people are still strongly against it on moral grounds. To some, abortion amounts to murder rather than being about liberal cultural values.

Advocates of abortion rights cite several reasons for why attitudes have not changed: a history of female oppression; the church’s continuing grip over sexual education; and very private experiences around miscarriages, fetal deformities, adoption difficulties and spousal disagreements over whether to keep a baby.

At the same time, many Irish say, sex and sexual health remain somewhat taboo subjects. Often, the negative consequences of sexual activity, including infections or unplanned pregnancies, are seen through a moral lens rather than as health issues.

The Catholic Church opposes abortion, and some Mass-goers here said priests had told their congregations that they would not be able to receive Communion if they voted yes in the referendum.

Ironically, it was a gay prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who called for this referendum that will essentially ask voters to repeal a 1983 amendment to the Constitution that gives a fetus the same right to life as the mother and allow unrestricted terminations of pregnancies for up to 12 weeks.

“I know I come across as a hypocrite,” said Darren Haddock, 48, a cabdriver who initially planned to vote in favor of abortion because he saw it as a woman’s right. But now, he said, “We’re talking about hurting a life.”

The referendum on gay marriage was different, he said. “The time was right for Ireland to come out of the Dark Ages, to break the shackles from the church, and it was a victory for people to stand up to it,” he said.

Ms. Donnelly, who recently divorced, voted in favor of same-sex marriage because her sister-in-law was part of the first gay couple to get married in England. Another cousin is gay, and recently got married, too.

When it came to abortion, she reflected on some of her other relatives who had miscarriages, having wanted children badly. “And then you have people who cross over to England to get an abortion,” she said, although she said there were some exceptions, as in the cases of rape or incest. “But just because you made a boo-boo doesn’t mean you get an abortion.”

Still, she voted in three previous referendums allowing women to have abortions if their lives were in danger, to travel abroad for the procedure and to have access to information about it. The legalization of abortion, she said, would “make it easier for people to say, ‘Oh, I’ll just go and rid of it.’”

Ms. Donnelly spoke as an older woman slowly pushed a baby carriage up the street, carrying two baby dolls under plastic wrapping to protect against a cold drizzle. Mr. Haddock recalled seeing the woman nearly four decades ago, when he was a child. She had had several miscarriages, he explained, and hadn’t stopped pushing the carriage ever since.

For Una Mullally, who edited the book “Repeal the 8th,” a reference to the Eighth Amendment that essentially bans abortion in Ireland, the answer to the dichotomy over gay and women’s rights is control.

“Misogyny is much more embedded in Irish life than homophobia,” she said. “Ireland has a terrible history of oppressing women, and the legacy of the Catholic Church is control,” she added, referring to the thousands of unmarried women who became pregnant and were placed into servitude or mental asylums since the 18th century until as recent as the mid-1990s.

Even when the country in 1985 legalized condoms to be sold without prescriptions, she said, it was to deal with the AIDS epidemic, rather than to give women their reproductive rights. “Women’s autonomy has always been viewed with suspicion or through a lens that is very bizarre,” she said.

In Cork, Ireland’s second-biggest city, placards for opposing campaigns were attached to almost every street lamp, but the mood was subdued. Most people interviewed for this article didn’t want their names published; many of them hadn’t even spoken about the subject with their friends, let alone their families.

“Oh God, no,” exclaimed a 24-year-old barista named Maedhbh who worked in a coffee shop and wore a nose ring and a bright yellow sweatshirt with the words “Bitter Lemon” printed on it.

“My grandparents don’t want to engage in it,” she said, just as her grandfather Paddy walked in. When asked about the referendum, he stopped in his tracks and pretended to be hard of hearing. “You could be shot for giving an answer,” a customer standing nearby said smirking, before rushing out the door. “There’s a saying in Irish: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing.’ ”

While the church’s influence has fallen drastically in most spheres of Irish life, its hold on sexual education remains strong — the institution still controls most schools in the country.

Even young, internet-savvy Irish in their early 20s spoke about receiving more of a lesson in biology, and a cursory one at that, than instructions about sexual health and safety.

“When we were 16 we had two lads, monks, come in to talk about abstinence, and that one in 10 people get pregnant and that you can still get STDs from wearing condoms,” said Ben Collins, a 22-year-old college student, who plans to vote to legalize abortion. “It was basically fear. The Catholic influence is so big here, but you don’t even realize it.”

Deirdre Allinen, 32, recalled sitting in a classroom and having nuns wheel in a television before being shown a grisly video about abortion. “Then we’d say the rosary and stand around praying,” she said. “The way it’s taught to us, it’s still in me. The curriculum is still hidden in our brains. It took me a long time to shake it off.”

As a result, Ireland has never had a conversation about sex being a positive thing, said Will St Leger, an artist and an H.I.V. activist who is on a crusade to reform sex education in schools.

“A lot of these issues around sexual health and reproductive rights all stem from a lack of information and shame,” he said. “That’s the biggest element — what we do with our bodies and with other people carries shame.”

“We see ourselves as global, checking in at airports, L.G.B.T., Eurovision,” he said, and Ireland as a mecca for tech giants like Google, Facebook and Apple. “But this crushing theocratic doctrine put on Irish society has permeated right to the core,” he added, “even to the person who doesn’t go to church: that sex is seen as a sin. It’s in our DNA.”

The dearth of a proper national conversation is part of the reason Ireland is seeing a surge in sexually transmitted diseases, Mr. St Leger said, with 15- to 24-year-olds, for example, making up half of Ireland’s number of reported annual chlamydia infections.

The nation is also in the throes of an H.I.V. crisis, he added, pointing to opinion polls that show one-quarter of respondents are not properly informed about the virus. At least a quarter of respondents still believe they can catch it by kissing or sitting on a toilet seat. And for all the excitement around the vote on same-sex marriage, Mr. St Leger pointed out, the government has since 2009 cut the budget in half for Gay Men’s Health Service, which provides H.I.V. testing, screenings and treatments for sexually transmitted infections, and outreach.

The same-sex marriage vote was “all about love and relationships,” he said. “But we don’t talk about sexual health.”

Still, sexual education has improved from Ms. Donnelly’s time, when nuns taught her class: “If a lad sat on your lap, you’d put a newspaper on your lap. That was the contraception of the day.”

In recent years, Ireland has seen some of the biggest turnarounds in public opinion in the Western world. In 1992, for example, when homosexuality was still considered a crime in the country, participants in a gay pride parade in Cork wore masks so as not to embarrass relatives. In 2018, Ireland has a gay prime minister, same-sex marriage is allowed and some of the world’s most progressive bills concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are being put forward in Parliament.

Similarly, attitudes toward abortion shifted drastically after Savita Halappanavar died in 2012 of complications from a septic miscarriage. She had asked for a termination, but the hospital refused her request, initially judging that her life was not in danger. The baby was stillborn, and Ms. Halappanavar died a few days later.

For many voters, the referendum over abortion is, ultimately, a deeply private choice.

In 2015, after the same-sex marriage vote, “it was like Glastonbury; it was party central,” recalled Mr. Haddock. But this week, he said, “no matter who wins or loses, there’s not going to be a party.”

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