June 9, 2015 / 4:34 PM / in 3 years

After gay marriage, impatient Ireland moves debate onto abortion

DUBLIN (Reuters) - When Gerry and Gay Edwards watched the joy sparked by Ireland’s vote to allow gay marriage last month, they did not see the same country that had forced them abroad to end a doomed pregnancy 14 years ago.

While Ireland is the only country to adopt gay marriage via a popular vote -- a major shift in what was once a strongly Catholic and socially conservative society -- its abortion laws remain among the most restrictive in the world.

In 2001, Gerry and Gay’s unborn son was diagnosed with anencephaly, a fatal abnormality where the skull is missing from above the eyebrows.

Irish law criminalizes abortion in cases of fatal foetal impairment, but rather than wait for the inevitable, the Edwards decided to induce labor. To do so, they had to cross the border into Northern Ireland, where such terminations are permitted.

Their son’s cremated remains were delivered to their county Wicklow home in an envelope.

“Nothing can be done now to change what happened to us,” said Gerry. “But the law can be changed so that people who get this diagnosis in the future don’t have to endure this, that the worst news they will get is that their baby won’t live.”

“I think the Irish public are ready for this,” added Gay, 51, who has since given birth to two boys and two girls. “They may not have been 10, 15, 20 years ago. They are now.”

After “social revolution”, as one government minister dubbed it, swept through the country when the same-sex marriage referendum was backed by a landslide, the young people who came out in their droves to vote have identified Ireland’s strict abortion laws as the next battleground.

A complete ban on abortion was only lifted in 2013 when terminations were allowed if a mother’s life was in danger, but human and women’s rights campaigners say the marriage vote shows Ireland wants to be a different type of society.

In a report published on Tuesday, Amnesty International said Ireland should stop “outsourcing” its human rights obligations. According to Britain’s Department of Health, around 4,000 Irish women travel each year to the United Kingdom for abortions.

“It’s easy and perhaps slightly trite to link what we’re talking about to the recent referendum, but I think there is a lesson to be learned from that process,” Colm O‘Gorman, the head of Amnesty in Ireland, told a news conference.

“That was a moment when Ireland demonstrated a capacity to have a real conversation on an issue that might have been seen as very socially divisive. This is a much more complex issue but I would hope we would engage with the reality of our laws.”

“DIRTY CAMPAIGN”

While all bar one of Ireland’s 43 voting areas approved gay marriage, abortion is a much more polarizing issue.

“I hope it never comes here. In my opinion, if you take another person’s life, it is murder.” said Rosemary Hughes, after attending Roman Catholic mass in Dublin on Sunday.

The Catholic Church’s dominance of Irish politics collapsed after a series of child sex abuse scandals over the last two decades. It mainly limited its campaigning last month to sermons to its remaining flock, but the Church would be expected to mount a more pro-active battle over abortions, which it opposes.

The 2013 legislation, adopted following the death of a woman who was not allowed to abort her dying foetus, prompted huge street protests from both sides of the fraught debate.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny, a practising Catholic who came out in favor of the limited reform, was sent plastic foetuses and letters written in blood.

Five of the then 74 members of Kenny’s center-right Fine Gael parliamentary party were expelled from the group after defying the government line and voting against the abortion law. By contrast, only one parliamentarian ever quit his party over the harsh austerity measures it imposed on the country.

Kenny does not want to be rushed into further change and says it should be left to the next government to decide whether to hold a referendum -- setting abortion up as the major social issue of the election which is due early next year.

His junior coalition partner, Labour, has already said it will campaign to allow abortion for cases such as rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

Activists will seek the abolition of the eighth amendment of the constitution, which enshrines the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child, while anti-abortion supporters will demand that it remains in place to safeguard all life.

“This will inevitably come up as an issue after the next election.” said Eoin O‘Malley, politics lecturer at Dublin City University. “If we think the marriage equality debate was dirty, it won’t be anything like what we’ll see in an abortion referendum.”

Additional reporting by Will Russell and Bart Noonan; Editing by Crispian Balmer

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