As a political science professor in Iowa, I have a front-row seat to that ballyhooed preliminary round of American politics, the Iowa Caucuses. From intimate living-room events with the long-shot candidates to big rallies organized by the frontrunners, the caucuses are a democratic spectacle. But in the end they’re merely one step in the intraparty process of establishing presidential nominees. Turning out in the midst of an Iowa winter every four years is not the same as a referendum, where all voters are directly deciding a matter before them.
Teaching in Ireland for several months recently, I was witness to the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland. With its language guaranteeing equal right to life of the mother and child, the Eighth, passed in 1983, effectively prohibited abortion, and initially was used to limit travel outside the country to secure an abortion—or even to receive information on such procedures. Under the Irish political system, any change to the Constitution of Ireland requires a majority via referendum. These democratic moments are made all the more powerful when they involve weighty issues that touch upon the political and social legacy of the people. In exit polls, strong majorities of Irish voters agreed that important issues should always be decided via referendum.
With 64 percent turning out to vote, Irish citizens chose to rescind the constitutional bar to abortion by a wide margin: 66 percent to 34 percent. And so the people of Ireland have empowered their government to enact laws providing for regulated legal abortion. In the run-up to the referendum, the government provided draft legislation to be introduced in such an eventuality. While details of the legislation remain to be finalized, the basic outline provides for abortion on demand up to twelve weeks, with more limited grounds for termination of pregnancy after this point; it also legalizes abortifacients that were previously illegal under the Eighth. It is fair to say that by the time of the referendum, the consequence of removing the Eighth had been made clear. “The people knew what we had in mind,” Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar remarked when the votes were tallied. “I don’t think it would be right to depart from that at all.”
The sheer scale and scope of the support for repeal, while surprising to many, reflect an Ireland that is changing, both in its people and in its policies—from a significant decrease in church attendance and lower identification with Catholicism, to a rapid increase of secularism and economic prosperity. As Varadkar noted the day after the vote, “What we have seen today is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland for the past ten or twenty years.”
Results of recent referenda, such as the 2015 vote on same-sex marriage—which saw Ireland become the first nation to recognize such marriages via referendum—might have presaged the outcome this time. Already in the 1990s, Irish voters supported lifting the travel ban for women leaving the country to secure an abortion, and also supported removing the ban on receiving information regarding abortion services while abroad. Yet anyone listening to voters tell their stories during the 2018 referendum campaign could be forgiven for thinking that the course of history seemed far from certain. Despite pre-referendum polls indicating a stable and significant lead for the repeal side, it was not unusual to hear people affirm the existence of a strong but shy “No” vote, and to predict that the result would be much closer than the polls indicated; belief that the “No” side could win was fairly widespread.
Campaign messaging blanketed Ireland’s landscape. Signs, ranging from simple sloganeering to pictures of a fetus in the womb, seemed to be on every lamppost, in city and village alike. And while Ireland does not permit radio and television ads during campaigns, a strong online advertising push micro-targeted potential voters on both sides. The sources of these online ads, as well as their funding, was a matter of much concern. The digital dimension of political life is largely unregulated by Irish law, and while Facebook and Google agreed to suspend such online ads in the weeks before the voting, targeted online ads still appeared.