DUBLIN — When Ailbhe Smyth was 37, voters in Ireland approved a constitutional amendment that banned abortion in nearly all cases and committed the nation to the principle that a pregnant woman and her fetus have an “equal right to life.”
Next year, when Ms. Smyth, a former professor and chairwoman of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, will be 72, Irish voters are expected to remove or alter that amendment in a new referendum that could give Ireland’s Parliament the freedom to legislate on the issue and write more flexible abortion laws.
What are the driving forces behind this significant shift in voter attitudes toward abortion and other social issues?
Ireland was long a bastion of Catholic conservatism, a place where pedestrians might tip their hats and hop off the footpath when a priest walked past. But economic and technological changes helped propel a shift in attitudes that accelerated with the unfolding of far-reaching abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1990s.
Over a generation, Ireland transformed from a country where 67 percent of voters approved the constitutional abortion ban to one where, in 2015, 62 percent voted to legalize same-sex marriage.
Ireland moved to the left on other social issues, too. It decriminalized homosexuality in 1992, removed restrictions on the sale of contraception in 1993 and legalized divorce in 1996. The Irish voted twice, in 1992 and 2002, to permit abortion if the mother were deemed a suicide risk. In 2015, the country passed a gender identity law favored by transgender rights groups.
‘A Disastrous Effect’
Priests once enjoyed great social and political power in Ireland, but the abuse scandal led to “the demise of the church,” the center-right prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who is 38, biracial and gay, said in an interview in September.
That would have been a politically unspeakable phrase for an Irish leader in the not-too-distant past.