DUBLIN — Ireland’s overwhelming vote to legalize abortion is viewed as the last main social taboo to fall in this Catholic-majority country, but the church’s hold on Irish life has been weak for some time, experts say.
Two-thirds of voters approved Friday’s referendum that will allow an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, bringing Ireland’s abortion laws into harmony with the European Union and most of the rest of the world. Its neighbor, Northern Ireland, still has a near-total ban on the procedure.
The referendum removed the Eighth Amendment, added to Ireland’s constituion in 1983 by the urging of the Catholic Church, that gave equal rights to a woman and an unborn child.
Political commentators here quickly described the outcome as a sudden, seismic cultural and social shift. But the truth is the change is not really so sudden.
About 80% of Irish people described themselves as Catholic in the last census in 2016. Yet it’s rare for priests and religious dictates to play much of a role in determining the views of ordinary people on abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce and other aspects of modern family life, said Mary McAuliffe, a sociologist at University College Dublin.
”The abortion vote is just one of the many liberalizing things that have been happening in Ireland for a long time, and we are actually quite a progressive society,” she said.
McAuliffe noted that when Ireland legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, it was the first country to do so by popular vote. And while the church is active in the Irish school system, its influence is a shadow of what it once was.
“We’re a very open and tolerant place,” she said, adding that any notion of Ireland as a quaint, isolated place is out of date.
“A lot of American tech firms such as Facebook and Google have their European headquarters in Ireland. That says something. Ireland is a connected and modern-thinking place,” she said.
Oran Doyle, a legal scholar at Trinity College Dublin, said one question is why didn’t the change happen sooner, given how easily the referendum passed.
“Obviously the Catholic Church was opposed to it. However, the Catholic Church has lost its moral authority for the vast majority of Irish people,” Doyle said.
He pointed to a series of sexual abuse scandals involving Irish clergy in the 1990s, plus harrowing stories of the Catholic Church’s cruel treatment of unmarried, pregnant women here that stretch back decades.
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Doyle said the likely explanation was that a “political logjam” had built up on the topic because it was considered “too toxic to handle.” And the landslide win for abortion rights showed that Ireland’s political establishment had completely misread the situation.
“Suddenly, Irish citizens had gone far ahead of where the country’s laws were at on abortion,” Doyle said.
Adding to the public conscience were a rising number of distressing stories about women unable to get an abortion.
One high-profile case in Ireland was an Indian dentist, Savita Halappanavar, 31, who died in agony from blood poisoning after doctors refused her repeated requests for an abortion while she was having a miscarriage at a Galway hospital in 2012.
Her death helped “personalize” the debate around abortion, Doyle said.
A less known case at the same hospital a month later involved Lupe Royan, 42, from Spain. Royan was living in Galway with her husband in 2012 when she was pregnant with her second child.
At 11 weeks, Royan had some bleeding, and tests determined the fetus had no heartbeat. But the hospital refused to immediately remove it, fearing doctors could be prosecuted since the abortion law allowed terminating a pregnancy only if a woman’s life is at risk.
“Savita’s death was on my mind the whole time,” said Royan, who quickly traveled to Spain to have the dead fetus surgically removed. “It was insane. The baby had died, and they would not treat me. I kept thinking: ‘What planet is Ireland on?'”
A short while later, Royan moved to Luxembourg and vowed never to return to Ireland.
“Today I’m celebrating!!!” Royan wrote in an email after Saturday’s news that Ireland’s abortion ban was overturned. “And the Guinness (an Irish beer) is cooling in the fridge.”