Ireland is at a crossroads. On 25 May, the Irish people will decide whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment and end a constitutional ban on abortion.
It will bring to a head one of the most bitterly contested battlegrounds in Irish culture over recent decades. There have been six referendums on the matter of abortion in the past 35 years, but this week’s vote will prove the most seminal yet: it will decide whether to allow unrestricted abortion in Ireland up to 12 weeks.
For the No side, the rights of the unborn are sacrosanct and must be protected. For the Yes side, Irish women must be treated with compassion and afforded abortion care at home.
For both sides, the vote is a test about how secular and liberal Ireland is prepared to be. It is more than just a battle over abortion rights – it’s a battle over Ireland’s identity and values too.
As the campaign intensifies, both sides are travelling across the country in an effort to win over a large swathe of undecided voters.
A poll out last week put the repeal side 12 points ahead, with 44% of voters now in favour of changing abortion laws and 32% against, according to the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll. But 17% of the population are undecided and the No side believes it is in striking distance of delivering a big upset.
“I do think we’re going to win,” says Tim Jackson, a Save the Eight campaigner at the end of a long day on the road, canvassing in rural towns Carlow, Kilkenny and Castlecomer. “The Yes side are falling in the polls all the time and the No side has all the momentum.”
In the repeal stronghold of Dublin campaigners are nervous too. On a canvass in south Dublin, one volunteer told me she’s worried: “I think we will win but I think it will be very tight. It’s such an emotive issue people don’t want to express their feelings. A lot of people don’t want to be known as a No voter.”
On the doorsteps and in the streets, both sides are emphasising what they think is their strongest card in the hope of winning over undecided voters.
Those in the Save the Eighth team are playing on fears that liberalising the law will lead to a spike in abortion and the death of tens of thousands of unborn children.
Posters hammering those messages adorn the lamp posts around Dublin and other towns. “In England one in five babies are aborted. Don’t bring this to Ireland.” There are also pictures of giant foetuses with the caption: “A licence to kill? Vote No to abortion on demand.”
Those in favour of repeal speak of the need to offer women more compassion and care.
They highlight the tragic cases of abortion – where a woman is pregnant with a baby that has a fatal foetal abnormality or has been raped – to press home why it is time to overhaul Ireland’s draconian abortion laws.
Amy and Conor Callaghan are one of those cases. The couple, who have a little boy called Finn, were forced to travel to Liverpool to terminate their unborn baby daughter Nico after the 12-week scan revealed that she had a fatal condition called anencephaly, which had left their baby without the top of her head.
“It’s not something we wanted to have tell people but it’s something we felt we had to tell people at this point in time,” explains Conor on the couple’s decision to go public with their very personal story of grief and loss.
“It was nearly a year ago now but a few weeks ago with the campaign kicking off we walked out the door one day and found a poster in front of our house with a picture of a foetus on it and ‘a license to kill’ written on it and we felt that was very cruel.
“I understand this a matter for public debate. But I think it’s difficult for the other side to see the pain that this campaign is causing for people who have been affected by the Eighth Amendment in a very real way.”
“For me it’s everyday thinking we should have a five-month-old now,” added Amy. “I don’t feel guilty, because I think we made the right decision but I feel maybe there’s a sense of judgement there from other people.”
To understand Ireland’s abortion laws you have to go back to 1983 when the country voted to insert a pro-life amendment into its constitution.
Activist Ailbhe Smyth remembers the 1983 vote well. She campaigned vociferously to stop a pro-life amendment being inserted into the Irish constitution – and lost.
“It was really divisive and at times felt really brutal,” she recalled of the 1983 referendum campaign. “I got horrible things; posters stuck on my car, calls in the middle of the night. People reciting the rosary down the phone.
“The establishment, an elite group of right wing doctors and lawyers, decided it wasn’t enough to prevent abortion becoming more of a reality in Ireland and they decided to lobby government to ensure they would have an amendment put into the constitution to copper fasten the proclamation against abortion.”
Thirty-five years on, and the Catholic hierarchy is watching the campaign with studied detachment. This time around, pro-life campaigners are framing their arguments around human rights rather than religious teaching.
“For me, abortion is nothing to do with faith to be honest with you,” says pro-life campaigner and radio host Wendy Grace. “I don’t think you need to be of any particular faith to say it’s wrong to end another human being’s life.”
Vicky Wall, who discovered her unborn child had the rare genetic disorder Edward’s syndrome at 23 weeks, believes passionately that abortion should remain illegal in Ireland.
Her daughter Líadán died in the womb at 32 weeks. She is adamant that abortion was never an option for her and believes that the Eighth Amendment protected her rights as a mother to continue her pregnancy.
A leading voice in the Save the Eighth campaign, she is unwilling to give other women in a similar situation to her a choice to terminate their pregnancies in Ireland.
“We have to look at what the choice entails,” she said. “We are looking a choice to end a unique human life and I don’t think that choice is a reasonable choice.
“I don’t think a human life should be simply be down to being unwanted or not and yes it’s much so difficult for women in those positions but again I talk about support and that but the bottom line is I am extremely pro-life.”
The Catholic Church’s influence has been in decline in recent decades, yet it still has some influence over voters in a country where 87% of the population identifies as being Catholic.
A recent Sky poll found that 47% of 977 respondents backed unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, with 37% opposing such a change.
But faith made a big difference in those responses. When it came to Catholics, 45% were in support and 40% opposed, while those with no religion were strongly in favour of liberalising abortion laws, with 69% in favour of the 12-week rule.
Out on the road and in Sunday mass, the church is making its presence felt, with Carlow’s local priest Father Ruairí O’Domhnaill – flanked by two nuns – turning up to greet the Save the Eighth campaign bus.
“I’m concerned,” Father Ruairí explained when I asked him how he was feeling about the vote. “I think everyone is concerned if the Eighth Amendment is removed because the path will be to give abortion for everyone up to 12 weeks so that means healthy women and healthy children and I just don’t think Irish people are ready for that or prepared for that.”
I asked him if voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment made you a bad Catholic. “I would say to anyone who considers themselves Catholic who are considering voting yes that they need to seriously ask themselves what they believe.
“The heart of our Christian faith is that God took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and that he took on the human condition. That he was a living human being in the womb of Mary and it’s fairly hard for anyone who would say that if they believed that to then say they didn’t believe that he didn’t have a right to be born.”
No voters’ language on the street is laden with faith too. One women on the street in Kilkenny said abortion was “murder” and “against the ten commandments”.
Another said abortion was “against the law of God and nature”. “I am angry with people when they say ‘our bodies are our own’. Of course they are but God brought us into the world and God will take us out of it.”
But back in Dublin, there is a more counter-narrative of solidarity amongst women too as those affected by abortion able to speak out and swap their stories.
Campaigner Tara Flynn concedes that her decision to end an unwanted pregnancy when she was 37 years old – she’s now 49 – is the “sort of everyday” experience that may not attract much sympathy, but said she was determined to end the stigma and the shame that engulfs this debate.
Ms Flynn said that speaking publicly of her own abortion at a music festival in 2016 had prompted many women to speak out too.
“That’s when I realised the warmth out there for people who have already travelled – for people that have travelled with them. People are keeping secrets in this country and have been for a long time.”
This referendum has prompted a painful national conversation and an outpouring of personal grief that has divided families, friends and communities.
In its journey to become a more secular state, Ireland has voted for divorce and gay marriage – but when it comes to abortion, views are deep-rooted and keenly felt, with both sides deeply invested in their cause.
And with the result uncertain, one thing feels very clear: a lasting peace in Ireland’s long-fought battle over abortion feels a very long way off.