Sunday 20 October 2019

Jody Corcoran: Abortion landslide down to reluctant, not silent, Yes

In an alternative analysis of the vote, Jody Corcoran crunches the numbers and sets out how the referendum success was a 'very middle-class coup'

From l to right are Francis Fitzgerald, Simon Harris, minister for health, Senator, Catherine Noone and Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar celebrate the repeal of the 8th amendment at Dublin castle. Pic credit; Damien Eagers / INM
From l to right are Francis Fitzgerald, Simon Harris, minister for health, Senator, Catherine Noone and Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar celebrate the repeal of the 8th amendment at Dublin castle. Pic credit; Damien Eagers / INM
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

So, you think you know what happened in the abortion referendum? Well think again.

The following analysis, based on an RTE exit poll, puts the referendum result in a different perspective to the narrative widely presented since last weekend.

History is written by the victors, as Winston Churchill said.

However, this analysis makes a case that the Yes side did not sweep to victory acclaimed on the shoulders of the nation, despite the 66pc to 33pc result.

An alternative interpretation is that the Repeal side squeaked over the line and added a landslide late in the day, its victory assured by the No campaign which miscalculated from the start.

Whatever your take, the stats show there is not an overwhelming demand here for access to unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks.

As to Fianna Fail being the villains of the piece? Well, wrong again, or not exclusively accurate anyway. As it turned out, supporters of the Independent Alliance, including non-aligned Independents, were most opposed to the 12 weeks proposal.

And lest urbane progressives think that can be laid solely at the feet of Mattie McGrath and the like, well, that's not quite true either I'm afraid.

Elsewhere, the exit poll shows supporters of the Independent Alliance and non-aligned Independents to have been progressive in the same-sex marriage referendum, for example.

In fact, 70pc of supporters from Shane Ross to Mattie McGrath backed marriage equality.

So what, says you?

So this: only 60pc of Solidarity/People Before Profit supporters voted Yes to same-sex marriage, (although 20pc were not eligible to vote, which is interesting in itself).

But this is the point about the abortion referendum - it was passed by the comfortable middle classes, while the working class was far less enthusiastic.

If anything, the abortion referendum could be described as a very middle-class coup.

It will be interesting now to see whether the medical profession who advocated for Yes make abortion services affordable to all.

And whether the Government ensures it will.

And whether the mostly middle-class women who celebrated at Dublin Castle last weekend will campaign again if not.

And, for that matter, what the long-term socio-economic consequences will be should abortion be made affordable and, therefore, widely available.

For example, a controversial but not disproved study (Freakonomics) has linked legalised abortion in the US to a relative fall in subsequent crime rates.

Surely there are issues here with which 'new wave' feminism might more fully engage now that the abortion war has been won?

The working class has a different attitude to abortion, however, particularly on the 12 weeks issue, as the RTE exit poll shows.

Solidarity/PBP TD Ruth Coppinger was to the fore in the Yes campaign, undoubtedly.

But 20pc of her party's supporters 'strongly disagreed' with the 12 weeks proposal, and a further 20pc 'somewhat disagreed'.

That's a combined 40pc of Solidarity/PBP supporters with doubts about or serious opposition to unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks.

So, what happened - how did the abortion referendum pass so convincingly?

The small print of the poll reveals all.

The poll has an effective sample of 3,779, taken across 175 polling stations nationwide with a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6pc.

So, it is more accurate than your standard opinion polls, which as it happens were also pretty accurate before the referendum.

From several findings in the RTE poll, it is evident that between 15-20pc were undecided in the final days, maybe down to hours.

In other words, around three-quarters made up their minds a long way out, one way or the other.

An RTE poll question asked to what extent voters agreed with the 12 weeks proposal, which was by far the most contentious issue.

The overall answer was: 52pc agreed with 12 weeks while 39pc disagreed - a far more closely run thing then, you will agree.

And overall, a minority 48pc working class agreed with the 12 weeks proposal, while a significant 44pc disagreed.

Further breakdowns are illuminating: overall 35pc 'strongly agreed' with unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks and 29pc 'strongly disagreed' - your standard pro-choice and pro-life voters, respectively, core supporters one way and the other.

By the way, of those who 'strongly disagreed' with up to 12 weeks 24pc were middle class, but 34pc were working class.

Now we get to the middle ground: a further 17pc 'somewhat agreed', 7pc 'neither agreed nor disagreed' and 9pc 'slightly disagreed' with the 12 weeks proposal.

Let's break the overall numbers down even further, to the central point: of the overall Yes vote, a sizeable 8pc 'strongly disagreed' with unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks - but voted Yes anyway.

And of the overall Yes vote, a sizeable 7pc 'somewhat disagreed' with the 12 week proposal - but voted Yes anyway.

And of the overall Yes vote, a sizeable 9pc 'neither agreed nor disagreed' - but voted Yes anyway.

So, as we can see, almost a quarter (24pc) of Yes voters who disagreed to extents with unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, or were unsure, voted Yes anyway.

And that right there, folks, is what accounts for the landslide Yes vote, which, at a comfortable level, had a slight 52pc majority for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, and would have passed.

The counter argument, of course, is that people set aside their personal (strong) disagreement with unrestricted abortion and delivered a landslide to allow women the right to choose.

There is merit in that argument.

But the relative lack of core support for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks puts a different complexion on the result all the same.

An alternative interpretation, albeit from a much maligned middle-aged, male (although not middle class) political journalist is that there was not so much a 'silent' as a 'reluctant' Yes vote out there.

Faced with a binary choice, a slim majority (52pc) supported unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks - as we middle-aged Malcolms in the middle had predicted all along.

But the landslide was delivered by 'reluctant' Yes voters, who made up their minds in the final week, days or even hours.

In fact, I know of one such indecisive Yes voter who walked in and out of a polling station three times before she cast her ballot.

It also seems to me that the 'reluctant' Yes could not support the No argument on a flawed and discredited Eighth Amendment.

After all, this was basically the No argument: your daughter has been impregnated through rape - tough; your wife must carry full term a baby that will die within minutes of birth - ah well; your daughter faces serious health problems in pregnancy - so what?; your wife will die if she continues with her pregnancy - sad, but that's the way it goes.

Like Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo, the No side entirely staked out the wrong (absolutist) position.

In retrospect, it was no argument at all, which the No side attempted to nuance late in the campaign with their 'too extreme' manoeuvre.

The Yes side, meanwhile, kept the focus firmly on the 'distress' issues: care and compassion; your wife, your daughter, your friend.

But still, as is evident from the RTE exit poll, the 12-week proposal saw many 'undecideds' on the rack up to the final moment.

That said, the manner in which 'undecideds' plumped for Yes was one of the more curious things witnessed in electoral politics here.

The expectation, on both sides, was that the 'undecided' would break down more Yes than No, but not as definitively Yes as it did.

It has been said, with merit, that the intention was pro-choice, to allow women the right to choose, and, indeed, other poll findings support that contention.

However, the fact remains, 'undecided' voters felt they had no real choice in this referendum - but they simply could not vote No.

And maybe they also wanted to be rid of an issue that has plagued the country for 35 years.

Eventually they weighed up a reasonable Yes argument against a really poor No one and went for Yes. And that really should be an end to the matter.

It is time to legislate, after a parliamentary debate by all sides and shades of opinion, for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. After all, that is what people voted for, however reluctantly.

Sunday Independent

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