(1st Add: Updates with comments from Pro-Life Ireland)
London (CNSNews.com) - Division among pro-life groups and a rural-urban split led to the rejection of an Irish referendum to modify the country's abortion laws by a margin of less than 11,000 votes out of 1.2 million cast.
Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who urged the public to approve the referendum, conceded defeat late Thursday.
The amendment would have allowed ending pregnancies in cases where the woman's life is in danger, but would have struck down a 1992 Supreme Court decision to allow suicidal women to obtain abortions.
The measure split anti-abortion groups, with some opposing any legalization of abortion. Others argued the limited exception would preserve the right to life and said that Wednesday's "no" vote will leave Ireland's abortion law in limbo and potentially open the way for abortion on demand. Most pro-choice groups advocated a "no" vote.
Pro-life "no" campaigners were headed by Human Life International and the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).
SPUC national director John Smeaton hailed voters for giving "a courageous witness to the world that the right to life of unborn children is non-negotiable."
"Now is the time for all people of good will in Ireland to unite behind the continuing campaign to protect human embryos from destructive procedures and abortion-inducing drugs and devices," Smeaton said.
He observed that a "yes" vote might have allowed other practices that pro-lifers find objectionable.
"The referendum was presented as legitimizing, among other things, the morning-after pill and other early abortion procedures," Smeaton said. "This has been rejected."
"The Irish people were told by their leaders that, unless they voted for abortion on certain grounds, the government would legislate to allow abortion when a woman threatened suicide. Pro-life voters were right not to succumb to such blackmail. One may never do evil so that good may come of it," he said.
The pro-life "yes" campaign was lead by Pro-Life Ireland, the country's largest anti-abortion group. Spokesman John Kelly said the fracturing of the pro-life movement led directly to the referendum's downfall.
"The government should not take this as a sign to legislate in line with the Supreme Court's decision," he said. "Analysis shows that the vote was swayed by a small group of pro-life 'no' voters. This was not a victory for the pro-choice movement."
The Catholic Church, still influential in much of rural Ireland, grudgingly supported the measure. The final results showed a pronounced urban-rural split. Voters in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick soundly rejected the amendment, while conservative rural counties returned solid "yes" majorities.
Overall turnout was low at about 43 percent, an outcome that was attributed to poor weather, voter confusion and electoral "fatigue." Wednesday's vote was the fifth time Irish voters have been called to the polls to decide an abortion referendum in the past 20 years.
Any change in Irish abortion law may now have to come from the legislature. No Irish parliament has passed a law in line with the 1992 court decision, and potentially suicidal pregnant women are still effectively barred from obtaining abortions.
Prime Minister Ahern said he was "disappointed" with the result but promised to obey the will of the people. Ahern wants to form a new agency to counsel pregnant woman while main opposition party Fine Gael supports instituting the Supreme Court decision into law.
Kelly said his organization would urge both parties to clearly set out their abortion agendas before a general election in May.
However, no proposed law is expected to change the most popular route to an abortion in Ireland - travel abroad. An estimated 7,000 Irish women visit the U.K. every year to obtain a pregnancy termination.
E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.
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