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Monday, 4 March, 2002, 08:41 GMT
Irish abortion poll confuses issue further
7,000 Irish women travel to Britain each year for abortions
7,000 women go to Britain each year for abortions
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By Shane Harrison
BBC Northern Ireland's Dublin correspondent

Citizens of the Irish Republic could be forgiven for having a sense of deja-vu over the abortion issue.

They are voting on the issue for the fifth time in less than 20 years.

They are being asked to overturn the threat of suicide as a ground for a termination in the state.

But whatever the result, it is unlikely to stop 7,000 women leaving every year to terminate their pregnancy in Britain.

'Silent voices'

Theirs has been a largely silent voice in this debate. Anne, who is 21, is one of those 7,000.

She got pregnant as a relationship was ending.

She said she could not have coped with a baby and had no regrets about having her termination but does regret her failure to use contraceptives.

"I suppose it is hypocritical. The government should either have the abortion clinics in the country or not let the women travel, but not try and pretend they don't know what's going on," she said.

Confused issue

The Irish Republic's abortion laws are both confused and confusing.

In 1983 the people voted to insert an amendment into the constitution giving equal rights to life to the pregnant mother and unborn child.

But in 1992 the Irish Supreme Court ruled that a suicidal 14-year-old rape victim, known as X, was entitled to a termination in Ireland.

She did not get it in Ireland and had to travel to England.

Why? Because successive Irish governments failed to legislate for the Supreme Court ruling.

So, doctors prepared to carry out the termination had no legal certainty that they would not be prosecuted.

Pro-life divisions

Pro-life groups have long campaigned against the X ruling and the referendum is their latest attempt to overturn it.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose minority coalition is dependent on the support of independent pro-life members of parliament, delivered to them another vote for their support.

Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern: Depends on independent pro-life MPs
But the campaign has revealed great divisions within the pro-life side and showed what a legally complex issue abortion in Ireland is.

While the powerful Catholic Church is urging people to back the government proposal, others like the former Eurovision song contest winner Dana Rosemary Scallon, argue that the referendum will not protect the unborn.

That is because human life is defined as not from the moment of conception but several days later at the moment of implantation.

Theoretically that should remove legal doubt over the morning after pill and the IUD.

But campaigners like Dana say Catholics celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception and not the feast of the Immaculate Implantation.

Close poll

Opinion polls suggest that the result will be very close, with a small majority in favour of overturning the suicide threat. The polls also indicate a great deal of public confusion over the issue.

But for women who find themselves with crisis pregnancies like Anne, the whole referendum is largely irrelevant.

More than 100,000 such women have had British abortions since the 1983 constitutional amendment.

In effect, in 1992 the people voted for abortion but not for abortion on Irish soil when they supported constitutional amendments that gave women the rights to information about foreign abortion facilities and the right to travel abroad to terminate their pregnancy.

An estimated 18 women leave the Irish Republic every day for abortions abroad.

They can only do so because there is a British solution to an Irish problem.

The BBC's Karen Allen
"The referendum question has left many confused"
See also:

26 Jun 01 | Europe
Ireland wavers on abortion
27 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Bishop calls for abortion referendum
15 Jun 01 | Europe
No abortions on 'abortion ship'
05 Apr 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ireland
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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