On Friday, May 25th Ireland will vote on whether or not to remove the 8th amendment that bans abortion unless the woman’s life is threatened. Tonight I watched the final two debates (why there were two in one night I don’t know). Media is not allowed to argue in favor of one side or the other the day before the referendum, which means that now is an excellent time to sum up the campaign.
First of all, let’s have a look at the polling. On the surface, it’s grim news: In the most recent poll, 44 % said they would vote in favor of abortion, while 32 % said they would vote against. The rest are either undecided (17 %) or say they won’t vote (6 %).
However, before despairing, one needs to look at polling from past referendums: In the gay marriage referendum three years ago, the final polls had Yes at 69 % and 63 %, and No at 25 % and 26 %. The final result was 62 % Yes, 38 % No. A landslide win for the liberals for sure, but as you can see all those who said they were undecided ended up voting No.
This was not in any way an outlier. Ireland held a referendum in 2013 on whether to abolish the Senate, and the final poll had the Yes side leading 44 % to 27 %. The final result? 48 % Yes, 52 % No! Again almost literally every undecided voter decided to stick with the status quo by voting No. In the Nice Treaty referendum back in 2001, 45 % stated in the final opinion poll that they would vote Yes compared to 28 % No. The final result was 54 % No, 46 % Yes! This pattern repeated itself in the Lisbon treaty referendum in 2008, which was also unexpectedly rejected by voters.
Does this mean that Ireland will for sure reject abortion on Friday? No, of course not – but it’s definitely not over!
Now, with that said: I’ve been out every evening for a while now canvassing for a No vote, talking to voters and hearing their concerns. Here are my thoughts on the positive and the negative aspects of the ProLife campaign, starting with the positive:
- “In England 1 out of 5 pregnancies end in abortion. Don’t bring this to Ireland!”. This is quite possibly the most common campaign poster, and it’s a powerful one, especially if you understand Irish history. The Irish identity is to a great extent defined in relation to England, and “Let’s not be like England” is a statement most Irishmen would agree with. “Don’t repeal me” is another good poster with a very clear message.
- Strong canvassing game. Like the people of Iowa, Irish voters expect to meet and greet their politicians or at least representatives of them. This goes in referendums as well. I’ve been campaigning in a strong Prochoice territory, and yet I’ve had countless people tell me that I am the first canvasser to knock on their door. I’ve also seen pictures on Facebook and Twitter of Prochoice groups bragging about having 8-10 canvassers out in one night when we easily have 16-20 out every single night. Quite frankly, the Prochoice activists are mainly young people who excel at social media but are stereotypically lazy and unwilling to pound the pavement and knock on doors. Many people have also testified that pro-choicers who do go canvass are unwilling to argue and very often rude, typical of people who sincerely believe that everyone who doesn’t agree with them is a woman-hating monster. Pro-lifers have canvassed in every area of the country, including the most liberal ones, ceding no territory to the opponents.
- No religion-based arguments. In 2015 Ireland held a referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage. As a Christian, I, of course, opposed this, but I knew early on that we were fighting a losing battle. In fact, I remember the exact moment when I realized that the SSM proponents would win: That was when I saw a No campaign poster with a Bible verse on it! This proved to me that the No campaign had no strategy, no direction, and no idea how to reach out to voters – the voters whom you could convince with Bible verses were already voting no! So why have such a stupid campaign poster that only reinforced to all undecided voters that this was a strictly religious issue? Fortunately, the pro-life campaign has learned from that mistake. While religious appeals have been made in churches across the country, on the doorsteps, in the debates and on the campaign posters we only use arguments that can appeal to everyone regardless of religious affiliation.
- A great variety of representatives. In one of the final debates of the campaign, the Pro-life side was represented by Peadar Tóibín, a TD (Irish congressman) from Sinn Fein. Now for those of you who don’t know this, Sinn Fein is a far-left, socialist party that is strongly pro-choice. Peadar, however, is a pro-lifer who has rebelled against the party leadership and refused to be silent. He’s also a good debater and especially good at framing the pro-life cause in ways that can appeal to those left of center. Allowing people like him to be representatives of the campaign has been important to widen our support and really drive home the point that abortion is not a left-or-right issue, but a human rights issue.
Overall, this campaign has been a great improvement over the 2015 campaign against gay marriage. Social conservatives who were taken by surprise by the rapid tide of secularization in Ireland have now regained their footing and began to seriously fight back. On Saturday we will know whether it was enough. If not, it’s probably due to these mistakes by the No campaign:
- No effective response to hard cases. Truth is, more than 80 % of Irish voters want to liberalize abortion laws to allow for abortion in the case of rape. The government, however, is looking to introduce legislation that would legalize abortion for any reason at all until week 12, and for “difficult cases” until week 24. While stats show us that rape makes up less than 1 % of all abortions, these and similar hard cases have been the major focus of the pro-choice debate. The pro-life response has been to point out that these cases are very rare, which is true and to point out that the government isn’t just legislating for these cases, which is also true. The problem is that it doesn’t actually answer the question of “Why should a rape victim have to carry the baby to term?”. There are three possible answers: 1) Ireland’s current abortion law allows for abortion in the case that there is a risk of suicide. Presumably, a lot of pregnant rape victims fall into this category, hence no further liberalization is necessary. 2) There are no studies that indicate abortion actually helps rape victims, and plenty of reason to suggest otherwise, and most importantly 3) Would you argue that a child whose father is a rapist is less valuable than any other? No? The same goes for the unborn. The No campaign sadly opted for “None of the above” and ignored the issue.
- Minimizing mental health. This became an issue in all three of the final TV debates. As stated above, the government wants to allow abortion up to 24 weeks if circumstances are deemed to be exceptional. “Mental health” is classified as a valid reason to have a late-term abortion. The problem is of course that mental health is vague and any woman could claim that she’ll commit suicide if she doesn’t get an abortion, and lots of GPs will grant it because they don’t want to possibly have her blood on their hands. This is a valid objection, but instead, the Pro-Life campaign has belittled psychiatrists and seemingly denied the importance of mental health without elaborating on what the problem really is. This has caused pro-lifers to come off as unsympathetic to say the least.
- No mention of adoption. Not a single pro-life ad, not a single pro-life poster, and not a single pro-life debater has even mentioned adoption as far as I know. There is a reason of course: Not too long ago, “adoption” in Ireland meant the Catholic Church took your baby, sold it to the highest bidder and burned all the paperwork. Despite this sad history adoption does remain the best alternative to abortion. The Prochoice side has framed the debate as one of abortion vs 18 years of forced parenting. In reality, as far as pro-lifers are concerned, if a mother wants to give up her baby for adoption the day he/she is born that’s fine with us.
- No recognition of the Catholic elephant in the room. Truth is that many people will vote Yes not because they necessarily support abortion, but to punish the Catholic Church for the outrageous child abuse committed by its priests and nuns that lasted over half a century in Ireland and was effectively covered up until recently. The selling of babies put up for adoption I mentioned above is just one example. In one case, in a “Mothers and babies” home run by the church in the village of Tuam, 800 babies and toddlers were abused so badly that they died. They were then buried in a septic tank that became a mass grave! Authorities were never notified. Since the Catholic Church is so intimately associated with the Pro-life cause, lots of people will vote for abortion as a way to distance themselves from and condemn the Church. I’ve met several of these people myself while out canvassing. The Pro-life campaign should have anticipated this early and made posters and ads to respond to this sentiment. There is a very obvious response: “Don’t punish the unborn for the crimes of the church”. Sadly, no-one in the campaign dared to bring up this issue and deal with the elephant in the room.
- American activists. This may seem hypocritical since I’m not Irish myself, but at least I’ve lived here most of my adult life and know this country very well. American pro-life activists who have traveled to Ireland have caused immense harm to the cause since absolutely no-one here wants a bunch of Yankees to tell them how to run their country. Most of these American pro-life activists are also Trump supporters which doesn’t help since Trump is incredibly unpopular on this side of the Atlantic.
How is this all going to end? If I were to go out on a limb, I would predict a result of 53 % Yes, 47 % No. I hope and pray that I am wrong, but I don’t think the establishment will allow us to win this one. We already got evidence of election fraud as voting cards have been issued to foreign students who obviously don’t have the right to vote (students as a group are 90-95 % pro-choice). Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube also conspired with the Irish government and together they blocked a lot of our advertisements. I will be out all day tomorrow handing out hundreds of leaflets and talking to voters, so please don’t think for a second that I’m giving up – I’m merely acknowledging that this game has been rigged.