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Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 14:20 GMT
Abortion issue unlikely to rest
Statue outside polling station, voters entering
Turnout is thought to have been below 50%
test hello test
Karen Allen
BBC Health Correspondent

So, the people of Ireland have rejected the proposed constitutional amendment that would have seen the threat of suicide removed as grounds for an abortion.

But it was a close run thing and although the result leaves the status quo intact, there will be pressure on both sides of the argument not to let the issue rest.

Abortion is an immensely sensitive subject in the Republic which has up until now "dealt" with the issue by exporting it to Britain.

Women are free to travel for abortions in Britain if they can afford it, and so more than 7,000 cross the Irish Sea to have terminations every year.

This week's referendum does not change that - but it has once again turned the spotlight on a country struggling to strike a balance.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern: Needs votes of independent pro-life MPs
As a journalist who over a number of years has trodden carefully on Irish soil to report on the abortion issue for a British audiance , it never ceases to intrigue me how abortion, a social reality in Ireland evokes such passionate debate in the Republic, not least among the medical profession.

Many people know a mother a daughter or a sister who has had an abortion, yet it's a subject still shrouded in secrecy and taboo.

Although many doctors I spoke to were uncomfortable with the fact that a referendum was being held in the first place, it was instructive to see the masters of Dublin's three main maternity hospitals throw their weight behind the Yes vote.

Their argument was simple. That mental health grounds for terminating a pregnancy was the reason given for the vast majority of abortions in Britain and were Ireland to give way on the suicide issue, it would be tantamount to abortion on demand.

Yet when pushed in the run up to the referendum on what they would do if one of their patients lives were at risk, they conceded they would perform a termination. So indeed it is a confusing position.

They accept as absurd the situation whereby if you are economically able you can travel freely overseas for an abortion whatever your motivation - yet if you don't have the means; if you've been raped or you are an abused child in care, you can't.

Yet there's a sense of fatalism when they hold their hands up and say that Ireland is not ready for big changes on abortion.

Although as an outsider there may be an assumption that doctors should take a lead on such things many in the medical profession in Ireland would argue that they are not there to set the rules but to heal - and we should not impose this uncomfortable burden on them.

So change will be left to the politicians. A slim victory for the 'no' vote means that the status quo remains.

Although the X case, in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that women should be entitled to an abortion if there is a threat of suicide, has set a legal precedent, many want this enshrined in legislation.

Confusing situation

The opposition Fine Gael and Labour Party have both promised to enact new laws if they are voted into office in the Republic's impending general election.

But anything that indicates a slip towards greater tolerance of abortion will be strongly countered.

The anti-abortion lobby was split along 'yes/no' lines in the referendum because of dissent on certain parts of the complex package of proposals - it led to a very confusing situation.

But the split was not because they are a weakening political force - and wherever one stands on the abortion debate - their influence should not be underestimated.

Irish abortion
Your reaction to the referendum result?
See also:

07 Mar 02 | Europe
Irish PM concedes abortion defeat
26 Jun 01 | Europe
Ireland wavers on abortion
27 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Bishop calls for abortion referendum
03 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Legal challenge to NI abortion law
20 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
No change to abortion law
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