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Michael Kelly: 'Deflated Irish pro-life campaign can take heart from the number of young people joining fight in US'

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'The 33pc of Irish voters who took the pro-life route in the referendum have not become abortion advocates overnight, and they increasingly feel marginalised.' Photo: Niall Carson/PA

'The 33pc of Irish voters who took the pro-life route in the referendum have not become abortion advocates overnight, and they increasingly feel marginalised.' Photo: Niall Carson/PA

PA Wire/PA Images

'The 33pc of Irish voters who took the pro-life route in the referendum have not become abortion advocates overnight, and they increasingly feel marginalised.' Photo: Niall Carson/PA

Whether greeted as a cause of relief or of profound sadness, there's no question that this week marked a momentous shift in Ireland. For the first time ever, abortion has become widely available without restriction up to 12 weeks' foetal gestation. In some circumstances, there will be no time limit.

Those on the pro-choice side of the argument see this as a huge leap forward. Those who identify themselves with the pro-life argument see it as a step in the wrong direction.

But while pro-lifers are undoubtedly disappointed at the legislation and the fact that the Government was unwilling to accept even reasonable amendments, they shouldn't be too disheartened. Most of Western Europe and North America introduced abortion decades ago.

In 2017, Britain marked the 50th anniversary of its legislation which led to 8.8 million abortions. Irish campaigners held back the inevitable trend towards choice on whether to give birth or not for many years and many Irish people are alive today because of that.

Some people see the passing of the abortion legislation as the end of the debate. Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell told pro-life deputies in the Dáil "we won. Ye lost". Her description of the democratic process was crude, but she's right.

The will of the people was decisive and they opted to support the provision of abortion by a margin of two to one. Interestingly, almost exactly the same margin that the voters of 1983 backed the legal protection of the unborn in the first place.

Pro-life campaigners should not waste energy in trying to re-run the referendum. The question for them now is how do they regroup after a bruising campaign with a scale of defeat for them that not even the pro-choice side expected?

Looking at the numbers alone, there is significant strength. When the ballots were counted, 723,632 - just over a third of those who voted - rejected the change in the Constitution. That's 179,000 votes more than Fine Gael attracted in the last general election and 204,000 more than Fianna Fáil won.

The big parties should think very carefully before concluding that the coming into force of the new abortion regime this week draws a line in the sand.

Abortion remains a contentious issue. The 33pc of Irish voters who took the pro-life route in the referendum have not become abortion advocates overnight, and they increasingly feel marginalised within the mainstream of politics in Ireland.

The nascent political movement of the ousted Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín may well prove to be the remedy that disaffected voters have been looking for. It's certainly one of the most interesting developments in terms of political parties on the island of Ireland in decades.

Mr Tóibín's town-hall-style meetings have been attracting large crowds north and south and he has pledged to have 100 branches set up across the country by the end of this month.

Mr Tóibín's new party and the courage he showed during the referendum will attract many people of the pro-life persuasion. But he is right to insist that the party is about much more than abortion.

So, politically many committed pro-life voters will likely realign from their traditional electoral support for the two big parties. But what for the pro-life movement overall?

A small group of young activists gathered outside Leinster House on Wednesday to make a silent protest against the legislation. I spoke with two of them and their message was clear: we're not going away and we're not going to stop saying that we believe abortion is wrong.

It's a strategy that is paying off for anti-abortion campaigners in the US. When terminations were legalised there in 1973, polls showed that opposition was highest amongst older voters. A recent Gallup poll revealed that opposition to abortion is rising most among young adults. Research shows Americans split right down the middle on the issue amidst rising discomfort at the prevalence and frequency of abortion there.

Back in the 1970s, there wasn't even a pro-life movement in America. Today, it is successfully lobbying all across the US to reduce term limits and cut government funding to abortion providers.

When the first March for Life was held in Washington in 1974, there were 20,000 people. Now the crowd is estimated to be more than 500,000 - many of them college students.

A few years back Robert McCartney, a columnist with the 'Washington Post', said he went to the march "expecting to write about its irrelevance".

"Isn't it quaint, I thought, that these abortion protesters show up each year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, even though the decision still stands…How wrong I was. The anti-abortion movement feels it's gaining strength, even if it's not yet ready to predict ultimate triumph, and Roe supporters (including me) are justifiably nervous".

McCartney estimates that about half of the marchers are under 30.

Pro-life campaigners in the US have been successful in getting their message across because they have identified teenagers and college students as the key demographic most receptive to a message that there has to be a better way than abortion.

Irish campaigners are understandably deflated, but as the small group who gathered outside the Dáil on Wednesday demonstrated, they haven't gone away and they will continue to be a thorn in the side of a political establishment that thinks abortion is a matter settled for once and for all.

It would be naive to expect any substantial change for decades, but as the US experience shows, reform can come incrementally.

And if Peadar Tóibín's movement can build up a head of steam, he could well see himself in negotiations to support the formation of some future government.

It's not a stretch to imagine that some of the amendments he so passionately fought for in the abortion legislation could once again see the light of day.

Irish Independent