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Tuesday, 5 March, 2002, 20:23 GMT
New confusion in an old debate
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By Denis Murray
BBC Ireland correspondent

This latest referendum on abortion in the Irish Republic is, frankly, one of the most confusing stories I've ever covered.

And it's not just me - honest.

Interest groups you would have thought would have had fixed opinions can't agree unified fronts.

Some feminists are voting yes, others are voting no; some pro-lifers are voting yes, others no; some pro-choicers voting yes, others no, and so on.

Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College: Peaceful heart of Dublin
Part of the problem is that the people aren't really voting on abortion at all - the referendum is aimed at clearing up grey areas and contradictions caused by previous referendums, Supreme Court decisions, and old laws.

One issue for instance is suicide. The Supreme Court ruled some years ago that if a pregnant woman was suicidal, then a pregnancy termination was permissible.

This referendum aims to rule that out.

I first went to Dublin more than 30 years ago, as a very young, very innocent student at Trinity College, one of the most beautiful places in the city.

The people of Ireland are still no closer to any kind of consensus on abortion than they were 20 years ago, when the first referendum was held

It was founded in the 1500s, and looks like a larger version of Oxford or Cambridge colleges, the proverbial oasis of academic calm right in the heart of a bustling capital city.

But the differences between the Irish Republic and the UK were obvious - contraception was illegal, divorce was illegal, homosexuality was illegal, and abortion was an issue that could barely even be discussed.

Deep divide

In the years since my college days, as a journalist I've covered and charted the massive social changes there have been - all of the above are now legal, apart from abortion: and it's the remaining such issue which still deeply divides Ireland.

Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern: Referendum is attempt to close loophole
As part of a report on the referendum for BBC Four, one of the BBC's new digital channels, I went back to the old Trinity haunts, and met four students in the Buttery Bar for what turned out to be a reasoned and rational, yet heated and passionate exchange.

Should it be a women's issue only? Does abortion do more damage to women than, say, going full term and giving the baby up for adoption?

Do the human rights of a pregnant woman take precedence over the human rights of the foetus?

When does human life begin - at the moment of conception, or of implantation?

Elusive answers

All the students espoused or argued against the possible answers to all those questions, and many other issues raised during our debate.

It seems to me that some conclusions could be reached - not so much on the rights and wrongs of what is always referred to as "the substantive issue", abortion itself, but more on the state of the debate and its consequences.

Firstly, the people of Ireland are still no closer to any kind of consensus on abortion than they were 20 years ago, when the first referendum was held.

And secondly, there's one absolute certainty. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, whether it's accepted or rejected, thousands of Irish women each year will continue to travel to England to have abortions.

See also:

05 Mar 02 | Europe
Q&A: Irish abortion referendum
05 Mar 02 | Europe
Anna's story: No regrets
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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