Youth on both sides mobilise ahead of Irish abortion referendum

Paul Faith, AFP | Protesters take part in the March for Choice calling for the legalisation of abortion in Dublin on September 30 following the referendum announcement.

As Ireland prepares to hold a May referendum on the Irish constitution’s anti-abortion amendment, the youth vote is front and centre of the debate – and young activists on both sides are gearing up for a fight.


A previous national referendum in 1983 approved the Irish constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which recognised an unborn child’s right to life. Women who have an abortion in Ireland can face up to 14 years in prison – leading thousands of women each year to seek to terminate their pregnancies in England and Wales.

Last week marked 26 years since a 14-year-old Irish girl travelled to London with her parents to seek an abortion after being raped by a neighbour. Her plight led to the Irish Supreme Court's landmark 1992 "X" case, which established the right to an abortion if a woman's life was at risk, including at risk from suicide. Although the decision sparked outrage across much of Ireland, thousands of others took to the streets to express their support for the girl (known only as "X"), and the case remains a key turning point in the country’s abortion debate.

In his speech announcing the upcoming referendum, set to be held in late May, Ireland’s Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar called for “no more X cases".

“We already have abortion in Ireland but it is unsafe, unregulated and unlawful," he said. "We cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions.”

Varadkar also pointed out that no one under the age of 52 had ever voted on the topic. For young activists, this is an opportunity for a new generation to have its say on a subject that had previously been decided for them.

And with little time left before the vote, young activists are getting organised.

‘Young people see this as their issue’

“Young campaigners feel the weight of history since 1983 on them,” says Síona Cahill, deputy president for the country’s Union of Students and the chair of pro-choice group Students for Choice.

Cahill says that more pro-choice student societies have been created across Ireland over the last year and feminist societies are also engaging in the issue. She said that the number of pro-choice students who attended the annual March for Choice in Dublin on September 2017 was double that of the previous year.

“We have seen a groundswell of incredibly creative direct action, unlike anything in previous years,” she told FRANCE 24. “Young people see this as their issue. We get one opportunity to make sure that this wrong is righted and we remove something that doesn’t make sense from our constitution.”

An Ipsos-MRBI poll published in The Irish Times on January 25 shows that voters aged between 18 and 24 would vote overwhelmingly in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment – at 74 percent. In comparison, only 42 percent of voters aged 50-64 would be in favour of a repeal, with that number falling to 36 percent among voters over 65.

The country’s Union of Students pushed to hold the new referendum in May, before exam period, so that the scores of young people who leave the country over the summer to travel or work abroad are able to take part.

Ireland’s young voters have mobilised before: In 2015, the gay marriage referendum first spawned the #hometovote movement, with expatriates sharing photos online of airport queues and packed planes as they rushed home to cast their ballots. The referendum saw record-high turnout, particularly among younger voters.

Professor Gail McElroy, the head of the political science school at Trinity College Dublin, thinks that young people will “play a key role” in the May vote. She told FRANCE 24, “It will be important because the most pronounced difference in terms of demographics is between younger and older voters. There is a parallel here with the marriage equality campaign, which was led by young people.”

Location, location, location

But despite the support for the repeal seen in opinion polls, there are plenty of dissenting voices among the youth.

For Cian Flaherty, 21, an anti-abortion campaigner and fourth-year student at Trinity College Dublin, the referendum on marriage equality – which he supported – is in no way comparable to abortion. “Abortion is the antithesis of equality,” he says. “Marriage equality was part of a move towards a more tolerant, inclusive Ireland. Legislating for abortion would be a move in the opposite direction.”

Clare Crowley is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Limerick and a campaigner with the university’s anti-abortion association, the Life Society. She says the group has been attracting more members in the run-up to the referendum and is stepping up its activities as a result. The society actively campaigns on and off campus, inviting anti-abortion speakers to events, going door to door, and having “street sessions” a couple of times a month.

Crowley believes that talking to people on the street can be what changes minds. “People often perceive people who are pro-life to be older, Catholic and very religious,” she explains. “I think meeting young, pro-life people can make a big impact.”

Geography could be a key factor in the vote. Dublin and other urban hubs are traditionally pro-choice, whereas the opposite is the case in more rural parts of Ireland. A January survey by the Irish Independent found that the number of TDs (members of parliament) opposed to unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks is four times greater in rural Ireland than in Dublin.

Crowley agrees that location has a lot to do with how the abortion issue is perceived. “I also studied at Trinity College Dublin and saw quite a difference,” she says. “People there who are pro-life might have reservations about being as vocal as the pro-choice movement.”

Biased media coverage?

For Ireland’s anti-abortion campaigners, it can sometimes feel like they’re sailing against the wind: Many report that Irish media coverage is blatantly pro-choice and that there is little information available on the other side of the issue.

“At the moment, much of social media is dominated by one voice,” says Róisín Bradley, a postgraduate student and anti-abortion campaigner at Trinity College Dublin. “However, on the ground, the practical reality is that many, many young people – despite being subjected to only one side of the debate – actually hold pro-life views.”

Lauran Kilmartin, a 25-year-old pro-choice campaigner from Dublin, says that it’s a very divisive issue among young people, adding: “They’re the ones who will have to live through the result."

And neither side appears to be going down without a fight.

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