This Friday, Irish voters will decide whether to change their constitution to legalize abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The debate itself contains few new arguments; instead it circles around a question most other European countries have asked themselves over the past 40 years: What is the proper balance between the mother’s right to self-determination and the unborn child’s right to life? But there’s another question, less about the substance of the issue and more about the campaign around it: In an era of global social media and well-funded foreign activists, what does it mean for a country to hold a vote at all? And if a democracy is no longer insulated from foreign influence, what integrity can any referendum claim? Forget hacking and illegal vote-buying. What’s happening in Ireland is more transparent, but also, for that reason, more troubling.
The vote, Ireland’s fifth referendum in five years, is over whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which bans abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. For such a small country, the vote has attracted enormous global attention, perhaps because Ireland remains a bastion of Catholicism in Europe.
But Ireland is also a place that should be relatively safe from outside influence. Given its long history in the shadow of Britain, the country has long held its sovereignty and self-determination especially dear. Also, as a relatively small country, voters are used to personally knowing their political representatives, who spend a lot of time campaigning door to door.