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Has Ireland changed enough to allow abortion?

Almost 40 years ago, amid immense excitement and fanfare, Pope John Paul II arrived in Ireland.

An Ireland that was deeply religious, overwhelmingly Catholic, that went to Mass.

An Ireland where you couldn’t divorce, where being gay was illegal and contraception was simply not allowed.

And so in 1979, Pope John Paul II was greeted by 1.3 million devout Irish Catholics at just one Papal Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

It was judged to be the largest gathering of people in Europe since World War II.

In August this year, Pope Francis will make a similar visit to Ireland.

Again he will be met with much fanfare. For some, his visit will create intense excitement. But for most, the main emotion may be ambivalence.

Pope John Paul II at Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1979
Image:
Pope John Paul II at Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1979

Ireland is a very different place today. Divorce was legalised in 1995, and the country was the first in the world to recognise gay marriage through a public vote.

Attitudes towards contraception have also been transformed.

The country is, and feels like, any of its European neighbours.

Apart, that is, from the issue of abortion, which under the constitution remains illegal in nearly all cases, including those of rape and incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

In this regard, Ireland is a very different place.

But change on this last bastion of the country’s Catholic heritage could now be underway.

A referendum is to be held later this year.

The government argues that abortion, as an issue, “is not going to go away and needs to be addressed”.

Or at least that’s the view of the country’s health minister.

While politicians may be divided on the outcome, there is something of a consensus that the Ireland of 2018 needs to have a say on the Ireland of 1983.

A referendum held in September of that year decided that the life of a mother and her unborn child are equal.


Siobhan Donohue had to travel to England to have an abortion.

Video:
‘My baby was dying but no one looked after me’

It would be wrong to suggest that 1983 Ireland has entirely evaporated.

Many Irish people remain as devout as a generation ago, and while attendances at Mass have plummeted, “Catholic culture” remains strong.

And so concern about a relaxation or liberalisation of abortion laws, and a belief that life begins at conception, runs deep across Ireland – it’s a settled and established view.

Albeit one which may well, like Ireland has, change by the middle of this year.

More from Republic of Ireland

So while the outcome of this historic referendum remains uncertain, the campaign is likely to be emotive, divisive and fiercely debated.

The result will either be another significant marker on a long journey of liberal change, or a step too far for a country expecting a visit from the Pontiff later this year.

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