Misinformation row as Ireland votes on legalising abortion

Under current legislation, abortion is illegal unless the mother's life is at risk

epa06759568 Camapaign posters are fixed beside a sign for a polling station in Dublin, Ireland, 24 May 2018. On 25 May Irish people will go to the polls to vote in a referendum if to legalise abortion in Ireland.  EPA/Aidan Crawley
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After a barrage of fake news and foreign-backed advertising, nerves are on edge as Ireland holds a generation-defining referendum to legalise abortion.

On Dublin’s historic O’Connell Street - which was central to the fight for Irish independence - opposing campaigners dressed in red and green jostle for position, waving banners and handing out stickers.

Campaigners wearing green call on the public to vote yes in Friday’s referendum to repeal the divisive eighth amendment to Ireland's constitution. Volunteers in red urge voters to say no.

Passed in 1983 when the Catholic Church was still a powerful force in Irish politics, the amendment equated the life of an unborn foetus to that of any other human being, making abortion illegal unless the mother’s life was in danger.

Ireland’s strict abortion laws contrast with those in the rest of western Europe and particularly in neighbouring Britain, where more than 3,000 Irish women travel every year to end their pregnancies.

The “yes” vote seemed certain to carry at the beginning of the year but the polls have narrowed in the days leading up to the referendum, with many voters believed to be undecided.

The change has made yes campaigner Paul Bowman, who is handing out leaflets on O’Connell Street, feel last-minute nerves.

"We've seen in the past, with Brexit, that polls can be quite wrong," the 51-year-old IT worker says.
Although he lives in cosmopolitan central Dublin, Mr Bowman has spent time recently canvassing in County Sligo, a rural area in the north of the country.

“I would have said that there would have been a higher proportion of no voters out in Sligo than in central Dublin but people were very civil even if they didn’t necessarily agree. I’ve been impressed about how open people have been to talk about a difficult subject.”


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For Mr Bowman and the army of yes campaigners, half the battle has been to try and dispel myths surrounding abortion.

“There’s a certain amount of misinformation being put around by the no campaign, so when we’re out canvassing we give people the real facts,” he says. “Genuinely, it’s about addressing people’s concerns but then redirecting them to think about the woman again.”

In the age of fake news, the spread of misinformation has been a real concern to politicians from the main parties, the majority of whom are backing the repeal. The vote is seen as a major test for the country’s popular Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who is not even a year into his premiership.

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (R) addresses the media after posing with ctivists from the "Yes" campaign, urging people to vote 'yes' in the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, during a photocall in Dublin on May 24, 2018. Ireland will hold a referendum on May 25 on whether to alter its constitution to legalise abortion. The Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution recognises the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother. Abortion is illegal unless there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, and a woman convicted of having an illegal termination faces 14 years imprisonment. / AFP / BARRY CRONIN
Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar addresses the media after posing with activists from the "Yes" campaign. Barry Cronin/ AFP

Under closer scrutiny from legislators all over the world following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, technology companies have tried to minimise the influence their platforms could have on the vote. Fearful of being blamed for another Trump or Brexit-style upset, Google banned all advertisements relating to the referendum while Facebook said it was stopping foreign-bought advertising on the vote.

Repeal supporters praised the move after pro-life groups in the US were found to be funding a wave of online advertising targeting Irish voters.

But Irish anti-abortion groups, who had planned to ramp up their online campaign in the weeks before the vote, argue that traditional media is biased towards the yes side.

“The national media here hasn’t exactly been unbiased. The government is biased as well,” says Anne Murray, spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group Pro Life Campaign.

The advertising ban has meant that the no camp have stepped up their efforts on the ground. In Dublin there are barely any lampposts or pillars without a poster linked to the referendum. Most lampposts bear posters from both sides, one on top of the other.

An anti-abortion poster on a lamp post in Dublin, Ireland. Claire Corkery/ The National
An anti-abortion poster on a lamp post in Dublin, Ireland. Claire Corkery/ The National

While the repeal posters focus on women’s rights, the pro-life posters portray a scenario in which abortion becomes widespread. If Ireland votes for repeal, the government says it plans to pass legislation to allow unrestricted abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. After 12 weeks, termination would be permitted only if there is a risk to the mother's life, if there is serious harm to the physical or mental health of the woman or in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. These cases would have to be approved by two doctors.

Across the country, posters warn voters that Ireland risks becoming like England where “one in five babies are aborted”, stating the UK department of health as its source. Critics have slammed the use of this statistic because it only looks at the number of abortions in comparison with the number of live births and still births. The number pregnancies which end in miscarriage are not included in the department of health's figures because the data for this is not available.

Asked whether the “one in five” poster was misleading voters, Ms Murray says: “At the end of the day, what it is saying is that there are a large number of babies aborted in Britain every year.”

Repeal campaigner Stephanie Fleming holds up a banner next to the River Liffey in Dublin, Ireland. Claire Corkery/ The National
Repeal campaigner Stephanie Fleming holds up a banner next to the River Liffey in Dublin, Ireland. Claire Corkery/ The National

But such statistics are a concern for repeal supporters such as Kelly Coyle, welfare officer at University College Cork Student’s Union. The union was mandated by an overwhelming majority of students in 2015 to campaign for more liberal abortion laws.

“The majority of their posters and the statistics that they’re giving out lie,” Ms Coyle says, pointing to another campaign poster which claims that 90 per cent of foetuses with Down Syndrome are aborted in England.

"The worst one is when they say repealing the eighth will allow abortion on demand up to six months, when that is not the case at all. It's very misleading and is trying to get people's emotive response to vote no."
The no campaign worry that legislators will eventually allow later-stage terminations on demand.

“Now it is until 12 weeks but it will be on demand in the future because the eighth amendment is the only constitutional right the baby has in the womb,” says Darragh Bailey, a 22-year-old no campaigner. “Then the government have a blank cheque to do whatever.”

The yes campaign fear what will happen if they lose the vote because the government has said it will not hold another referendum on the issue.

“The government had to be dragged here. Eighteen months ago they said this would never happen. If we lost, then they could say, 'we gave you your referendum now let’s forget about it',” says Stephanie Fleming, a paediatric physiotherapist. Dressed in a hi-vis green jacket, she is holding a large yes banner by the side of the River Liffey and is at the mercy of drivers yelling comments from passing cars.

“But even if there’s a 'no' result on Saturday, we’ll be back out here Monday morning.”