Irish campaigners in abortion referendum vie for online impact

Dublin (AFP) –


Leading Irish actors have urged voters in a video posted online Sunday to legalise abortion in the country, as campaigning intensifies ahead of a referendum later this month on the issue.

The black-and-white video features an ensemble of screen stars voicing their opposition to laws making abortion illegal in Ireland unless there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.

Women are free to travel abroad for abortions -- and thousands do so every year, mainly to England -- but they face 14 years imprisonment if convicted of having an illegal termination on the island.

"In Ireland today", begins "Game of Thrones" actor Liam Cunningham, "if the woman sitting next to you is pregnant" continues local TV star Peter McDonald, "she does not have full rights over her own body" adds Owen McDonnell, famous for playing a fictional police sergeant on Irish TV.

Staring into the camera, a host of other actors -- from Cillian Murphy, lead in the BBC hit show "Peaky Blinders", to Andrew Scott, star of its "Sherlock" series -- continue to deliver short messages in the more than two-minute video.

"Why should anyone but me decide what happens to my own body?" Murphy asks.

It concludes with Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan's blunt appeal: "Please, vote yes!"

Hollywood big-name Liam Neeson also gave his backing to the campaign, in an open letter to the Irish Independent newspaper Monday.

"To respect a woman's right to decide, I'm backing yes" he wrote.

Irish citizens head to the polls on May 25 to decide whether to alter the eighth amendment of the constitution, which recognises the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother.

There have already been several referendums related to the issue, the first in 1983 which introduced the amendment after a wide margin voted in favour.

A 1992 ballot approved an update to the constitution stating it did not restrict the freedom to travel to another state for an abortion.

Meanwhile a 2013 change in the law, which was not put to a referendum, allowed for the exemption of mothers whose lives are endangered.

The Catholic Church in Ireland has been voicing its opposition to any change in a series of pastoral letters -- and urging voters to watch YouTube videos celebrating life.

"It is wrong to terminate life, human life," wrote Ray Browne, bishop of County Kerry, in one such letter.

"The right to life of the unborn child is a fundamental right. Abortion is wrong."

If proponents of change prevail at the ballot, a provision will be added to the Irish constitution allowing for "the regulation of termination of pregnancy".

"How could a person not but be sad to see such a phrase inserted in our Constitution?" Browne asked.

Opinion polls this year have shown the "yes" campaign ahead but pro-life advocates gaining ground.