Ireland's abortion referendum campaigns ramp up

Dublin (AFP) –


Pro- and anti-abortion activists in Ireland are hitting the streets and social networks to mobilise a divided electorate with less than a fortnight to go until a referendum on the thorny issue.

Voters decide on May 25 whether to remove the 1983 constitutional restriction on abortion -- a highly sensitive issue in a traditionally devoutly Catholic country.

Back in 1983, 67 percent voted in favour of the eighth amendment, which outlawed abortion.

The law was tweaked in 2013 to allow terminations if the mother's life is at risk, following public outrage at the death of a pregnant woman refused an abortion.

But anyone having an abortion or helping a woman to do so still faces up to 14 years in jail.

The referendum will ask voters if they want to keep the constitutional restriction or repeal it and allow the Irish parliament to legislate on abortion.

It comes three years after a referendum in which Ireland voted by a landslide to legalise same-sex marriage -- a seismic change.

Some 45 percent are in favour of changing the abortion law while 34 percent back the status quo, with 18 percent undecided, according to the latest poll by Kantar Millward Brown for the Sunday Independent newspaper.

- Badges and sweaters -

Despite their consistent poll lead, the Yes camp are taking nothing for granted.

"I think that it will be very close," said Sarah Monaghan, spokeswoman for the Together for Yes campaign, the main pro-repeal umbrella group, which is urging supporters to redouble their efforts.

On Saturday, thousands gathered in Dublin for the final major pro-life rally ahead of the referendum.

Under the banner of "Love Both Vote No", people crowded into the square outside parliament.

Demonstrators held up placards reading "Compassion for both" showing a mother and baby, "Voice for the voiceless", "My heartbeat started at 22 days" and "Repeal kills. Vote No."

Meanwhile Doctors Together for Yes launched its public database of more than a thousand doctors backing repeal.

Coffee shop information meetings and fundraising evenings are among the multitude of events trying to attract mostly younger people to get on the electoral register.

A Together for Yes pop-up shop in central Dublin drew in lots of younger voters, who are often seen around the capital wearing "Yes" badges and t-shirts, or "Repeal" sweaters.

"When people see the 'Repeal' jumpers, they ask you questions and it opens a dialogue so it's a really healthy way to forward the message," said Tara, a student who bought four for her flatmates at 29 euros ($35) each.

"But it's all towards the aid of the campaign," the 20-year-old said of the cost.

The campaign has largely been fought out on social media with highly active local groups reaching out to a mainly a younger audience, who have been characterised as being more liberal.

Yes backers talk about a generationally-defined poll, with Monaghan, 27, calling it a "once in a lifetime opportunity to change the society we live in".

- Battle buses -

But the pro-life campaign is also reaching out to younger voters with several national bus tours, with numerous under-30s on board.

Among them is Katie Ascough, who at 21 is one of the faces of the campaign against lifting the restrictions on abortion.

"My generation knows more than any previous generation about the development of an unborn child," she claimed, saying the evidence demanded the protection of life from the point of conception.

Activists criss-crossing the country in battle buses are aiming to reach more people, using statistics on the number of abortions carried out each year in neighbouring Britain and material on the perceived risks of changing the law in Ireland.

"People are misinformed," said Katie Duffy, 28, who joined one of the bus tours winding through Ireland's towns and villages.

No campaigners often claim a biased liberal mainstream media is in cahoots with the Yes lobby.

And with a majority of Irish MPs backing repeal, the pro-life campaign pits itself against the establishment, using the slogan: "Join the rebellion".

Google's decision Wednesday to halt all referendum adverts -- the day after Facebook announced a similar move -- has reinforced their suspicions as the No campaign was using more online ads, leading them to brand the referendum "rigged".