After weeks of anticipation, acrimony and more than a little heated discussion, Irish voters are finally casting ballots Friday to decide a simple yet deeply divisive question: Should the country repeal a constitutional amendment that bans abortion in nearly all circumstances?
A "no" vote would preserve the 1983 amendment that recognizes the "right to life of the unborn," effectively equating the life of a fetus with the life of a mother. A "yes" vote, meanwhile, would ease the way for Irish lawmakers to pass legislation allowing abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and in cases that could endanger the mother's life.
More than 3.2 million people have already registered to weigh in on the historic referendum, which raises the possibility of rolling back some of the strictest abortion laws in the Western world. And as voting began across the country Friday, if recent polling is any indication, their answer is likely to be closely contested.
Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that thousands of Irish expatriates returned home to make their own voices heard — so many, in fact, that the wave of flights home spawned a popular hashtag on Twitter: #hometovote. Social media feeds have filled with images of boarding passes, personal testimonials and stories of flights packed with Irish voters.
One such voter, Michelle McHugh, tweeted the travails she faced to lend her own voice in favor of repeal: "No flights left from London, so I have a 4 hour train, 4 hour wait and 3 hour ferry to make it home to vote- which is a walk in the park in comparison to the journey that Irish women are making every day to the UK" — where, unlike Ireland, abortion is legal before 24 weeks and in certain other conditions.
Ireland's prime minister, Leo Varadkar, has said nearly 200,000 women have traveled to Britain to terminate pregnancies in the 35 years since the amendment was passed. He has actively campaigned in recent weeks to have the ban abolished.
"It's not a vote on me, not a vote on the government," Varadkar said this week in Dublin, according to the Financial Times. "It's a vote as to whether we trust the women of Ireland to make decisions about their own lives for themselves."
Nevertheless, given the extent to which he has thrown his weight behind "yes," many observers regard this vote as a referendum partly on the popularity of his still-young tenure as premier. It's also a test of the apparent leftward shift of the electorate recently represented by Varadkar himself, the first openly gay prime minister in a once-deeply conservative country that had banned homosexuality until just a quarter-century ago.
As NPR's Alice Fordham noted Thursday, Ireland in recent years "has legalized easier access to contraception, divorce, homosexuality and same-sex marriage" — becoming the first country in the world, in fact, to legalize gay marriage by popular vote.
Still, the country remains predominantly Roman Catholic, and the church has come out strongly against the measure.
"Life is God's gift and the right to life comes from God and not from any law or constitution. Because it terminates human life which begins at conception, abortion can never be condoned in any circumstances," priests in the Diocese of Achonry wrote in an open letter published by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference last week.
"The Eighth Amendment to our Constitution gives protection to the most vulnerable and voiceless members of our society," the letter added. "The forthcoming referendum calls us to be their voice and defend their right to life."
It is a sentiment echoed by one medical doctor, who told Fordham that he is "very proud to be part of this new Ireland," and that "we've all known women who felt that they've no other options" — but also that he supports "no," because "human rights extend to everybody, not just the strong."
Polls earlier this week showed a slim majority favoring repeal of the abortion ban, but the referendum is expected to come down to the wire. Authorities say they will announce final results by Saturday.
And when they do, that is likely to be the final word, at least for the foreseeable future. Varadkar told The Irish Times that the government will not hold another referendum if the repeal effort is defeated.
"This is a once-in-a-generation decision," he said.