TWO weeks ago I was visiting a Belgian friend who spoke, in addition to French and Flemish, perfect English. He still had trouble understanding me. I was trying to explain Irish politics, and our upcoming referenda.
"They're quite straightforward," I told him. "There are three referenda and a general election all on the same day. The first referendum is to give Irish women the right to travel outside the country."
"I don't understand," he said. "How can a country, a European country, a member of the European Community, need to have a constitutional referendum on whether or not women can travel?"
"In 1983," I said, "we had an abortion referendum which guaranteed the right to life for the `unborn'. It was an unnecessary piece of legislative tinkering since abortion was already illegal in Ireland and ever likely to remain so.
"At the time we were warned by various legal experts that the constitutional wording was ambiguous. In February of this year we found out why. A case, known as the Miss X case, led the Irish Supreme Court to rule that it was impossible to weigh the life of the mother in equal terms as that of the fetus, especially in cases where an advancing pregnancy may result in the death of the mother. Technically this meant that abortion was permissible to save the mother's life. Miss X was a rape victim. Her attemp ted suicide was deemed a sufficient threat, and therefore she should be allowed to have an abortion.
"However, there was nowhere in Ireland for her to get one. She was permitted to travel to England (as an estimated 7,000 other Irish women do each year) to have an abortion. But 2 of the 5 Supreme Court judges dissented, pointing out that the Constitution made abortion not only illegal in Ireland, but forbade Irish women from traveling abroad to have an abortion.
"Miss X miscarried, making the case moot, but the question loomed. Thus a referendum on the subject was necessary. Simple, isn't it?"
My Belgian friend thought a bit.
"Seven thousand women a year? Isn't that a lot for a small country?"
"It is. In fact Ireland, with no abortion, has a higher abortion rate than, for example, Holland, where the laws are much more relaxed."
"But why is that?"
A very good question. I tried my best to explain. "Well, Ireland has, for the last 50 years tried to pretend that sex doesn't exist. Things like contraception and sex education in schools are nonexistent. Any publication or film that concerns itself with sexual matters has been banned by the Censorship Board.
"So the second referendum will allow information on abortion. At the moment, newspapers and magazines from England or elsewhere are seized by customs if they contain adverts for family planning clinics or abortion referral services. This referendum will allow such material to be published in Ireland."
"And the third referendum?" my friend asked.
"The third allows abortion if the mother's life is at risk through pregnancy. But here the vote is more confused. The pro-life lobby will vote no because they see no circumstances in which the unborn life should be ended. Pro-choice people will also vote no because they think it too restrictive; that is, they think the mother's health, physical and mental, not only her life, should be considered."
Yesterday, I had to call my Belgian friend, and as I feared, he asked about the election.
"I was curious..."
"Yes, yes," I said, cutting him off. "The first referendum that allowed women to travel passed, and so did the one about publishing abortion information, but the third one was defeated."
"How come?" he asked.
I had been afraid of this. "A third of the electorate that voted against the first two questions also voted against the third on the grounds that abortions should not be permitted on any grounds. They were joined by those who thought abortion should be permitted on far wider grounds, and by another group who thought that the question was a matter for law and not a constitutional issue."
"What will the government do?"
"What government? The election held the same day gave no one control. We're in for weeks of negotiation."
"Tell me how this will work out," he said.
"I'll do better," I said, " I'm writing a piece for the paper. I'll send you a copy."
After all, I was paying for the call. The Irish love to talk, but we have extremely high phone rates.