Last Friday, voters in Ireland repealed their constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which provided legal protection for unborn children. Repeal received the support of over 66 percent of Irish voters. The large margin of victory has supporters of legal abortion and their allies in the mainstream media swooning. Much of the media coverage has taken on a triumphalist tone, suggesting that the results indicate that Ireland is now a largely secular country where the Catholic Church has only marginal influence. The exact nature of Ireland’s abortion policy will be decided in the next session of parliament, with many politicians promising to introduce legislation that would broadly legalize abortion.
Friday’s referendum was doubtless a setback for pro-lifers in both Ireland and around the world. Prior to Friday, Ireland was one of only a small number of industrialized democracies that provided substantial legal protections for unborn children. However, a thorough exit pollof over 3,700 Irish voters conducted by RTÉ, the Irish national television and radio broadcaster, found that many Irish voters were conflicted. A close look at the results indicates that unique scenarios involving rape, fetal abnormalities, and health risks to women were salient in the minds of many Irish voters who voted in favor of repeal.
The exit poll finds that abortion attitudes in Ireland have some features similar to those in the United States. There was a small gender gap. Women were more likely than men to support repealing the Eighth, but the difference was relatively slight. Church attendance was a very strong predictor of voting behavior. Among those who attended church services at least once a week, 63 voted against repeal. However, this group constituted only 30 percent of the Irish population. Among those who attended church less often than weekly, only about 17 percent voted against repeal.
The poll also contains information about what persuaded Irish voters. It appears that the campaign had only a marginal impact, as only 12 percent of voters indicated that they made up their mind during the course of the campaign. Furthermore, when asked what influenced their vote, only 17 percent stated either campaign posters or direct contact with campaigners. In contrast, 77 percent cited stories of people they knew or peoples’ personal stories as covered in the media — which tended to emphasize unique scenarios involving health risks and fetal deformities. Furthermore, when asked for specific factors that influenced their vote, three of the top four factors were risk to health or life of the woman, pregnancy as a result of rape or incest, and fatal fetal abnormalities.
The most interesting survey question asked if abortion should be made available on request up to twelve weeks of pregnancy. Only 52 percent of voters said they either “strongly agreed” or “slightly agreed.” Given that this exit poll overestimated support for repeal by a few percentage points, there is a good chance that less than half of Irish voters were willing to express support for this position. This clearly shows that many people who voted in favor of repeal were conflicted and would be open to supporting some legal protections for the unborn.
Detailed polling data on sanctity-of-life issues can usefully inform public-policy debates. In that regard, this exit poll could certainly have been improved upon. It failed to ask a number of questions that would certainly have been of interest to pro-lifers. There were no questions about waiting periods, taxpayer funding for abortion, or parental-involvement laws. That said, the poll does make clear that anecdotes and unique scenarios involving rape, fetal abnormalities, and pregnancies involving health risks were very salient in the minds of many Irish voters during last week’s referendum. Furthermore, Irish voters are not sold on abortion on demand. Given that, Irish pro-lifers would do well to keep up the fight.
Michael J. New is an associate professor of economics at Ave Maria University and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.