Ireland Split by Abortion Referendum So Hot That Google and Facebook Have Banned Campaign Ads

On Friday, Ireland will be asked to vote on repealing the constitutional ban on abortion. It’s such a bitter fight that Facebook and Google have banned ads.

Niall Carson/Getty

DUBLIN, Ireland—My wife and I were driving through the center of the city, remarking, yet again, on the number of pictures of fetuses plastered all over Dublin ahead of Friday’s referendum that seeks to remove Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion. “I just don’t think it’s right to kill another human being,” piped up a voice from the backseat.

In recent weeks, everyone here in Ireland has grown used to hearing this kind of declaration emanating from the lips of the “Vote No” (anti-abortion) side.

But this was my 12-year-old son talking.

My wife and I looked at each other in amazement, and exchanged a silent message to tread carefully.

“Why do you think that, mate?” I asked.

He repeated the vote “No” message: Fetuses can kick, yawn, and smile, and it’s not fair to kill them.

My wife said that sometimes women who have been raped are forced to have children, and they shouldn’t be.

“Yes, but that’s not the babies’ fault, is it?” he replied.

My wife gently asked my son where he was getting his information. She said this didn’t sound like him talking. Had a campaigner against the repeal of the 8th Amendment approached him on the street? At school?

Long silence. He didn’t want to tell us, he said, because he thought we’d get angry.

We promised we wouldn’t.

Even longer silence. Then, eventually, “YouTube.”

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We set to work explaining that life is not always a simple black and white choice. That some people believe women shouldn’t be forced to have a baby if they don’t want one.

But the YouTube ad had done its work well. He kept coming back to the moral absolutism of the No side, which can be broadly summarized as Thou Shalt Not Kill.

This conversation took place in recent days, but my son must have seen that video prior to May 9, as that was the day Google, which owns YouTube, made an unprecedented and controversial decision to ban all referendum advertising on its sites, saying it was moving to protect “election integrity.”

Facebook, the day before, had made a similar but less dramatic move, announcing it would no longer accept referendum-related advertisements paid for by users outside Ireland in order to “ensure a free, fair, and transparent vote.”

While there has been much hand-wringing (particularly from the “No” side) about the tech titans unilaterally closing down debate, and there is no doubt that it would be preferable for decisions about Irish democracy to be made in Dublin rather than California, the tech companies seem to be cooperating with the spirit of Irish law, which bans radio and television ads for referendums completely, while foreign political donations are outlawed.

Ireland’s 20-year-old electoral rules have not been updated to take account of the internet, which means the issue of online advertising has been left to the tech companies themselves and voluntary groups, such as the Transparent Referendum Initiative (TRI), which is compiling a searchable database of political ads being targeted at Irish voters related to the referendum.

Craig Dwyer, of TRI, told The Daily Beast that the group aims to highlight the “complete lack of regulation” of referendum advertising on social media and more broadly online.

“We are trying to show that our current electoral laws are completely outdated,” said Dwyer. “Nobody is looking at online ads at all. There are no rules. People outside of Ireland can’t donate to a campaign, but before Facebook took the initiative to ban ads, there was literally nothing to stop people spending money online to target Irish voters. Plus, all the ads were completely unregulated.”

Dwyer said his group is “certainly not advocating” blanket bans going forward but just wants the online space to be regulated in the same way as traditional broadcast media.

The 1,300 referendum ads the 600 volunteers using the TRI plug-in have identified were evenly split between the “Yes” and “No” sides, Dwyer said, but when you looked only at those coming from outside Ireland, the ads “heavily skewed to ‘No.’”

The foreign ads, he points out, are still highly visible on Irish screens, because although Google is not placing them, other ad services such as Adobe are.

The polling suggests that the “Yes” to repeal side will win (“Yes” 56 percent, “No” 27 percent, “Don’t Know” 14 percent), and after the country voted in favor of same-sex marriage three years ago, it would be a massive upset if “No” won. But there are a lot of undecided voters, and post-Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to exaggerate the nervousness with which repeal campaigners are awaiting Saturday’s count.

“Don’t underestimate the long shadow of the church in this country,” one advertising executive told The Daily Beast. “It’s literally hundreds of years of repression and being told you’ll go to hell.”

His remarks are typical of a “Yes” side that seems pathologically averse to tempting fate, especially as Irish premier Leo Varadkar has made it clear this is a once-in-a-generation vote that won’t be held again if the “right” result isn’t returned.

The “No” side—whose principal voices all appear to be men—seem to have caricatured themselves as misogynistic dinosaurs. One senior churchman, the Bishop of Ossory, Dr. Dermot Farrell, told a radio show that sometimes abortion “after rape was far worse than the rape itself.”

John McGuirk, head of the Save the 8th pro-life campaign, told a reporter that one woman who has shared her abortion story, Jennifer Ryan, was a murderer who “took a life.” (Ryan had talked movingly about how she traveled to England to terminate a pregnancy after discovering her unborn baby had spina bifida, no kidneys, and non-viable lungs. Its powerful heartbeat and the 8th Amendment meant she was not allowed an abortion in Ireland.)

If the 8th Amendment is repealed, it will be yet another sign of just how quickly Ireland has shed its deference to the Catholic Church following decades of scandals. The 8th is not some tradition dating from the mists of time; it was only in 1983 that after a referendum, the clause was inserted into the Irish constitution saying that a mother and an unborn child had an equal right to life.

The 8th has faced numerous challenges in the courts, most notoriously the X case in 1992, in which an anonymized 12-year-old rape victim was initially prevented from traveling to the U.K. for an abortion. It wasn’t until a woman named Savita Halappanavar died in 2012 after being refused an abortion in an Irish hospital—she begged for the procedure to be carried out but was told by staff that Ireland was “a Catholic country”—that the government legislated to allow abortion to be carried out if the mother’s life was at risk. (Even after that harrowing news story, 31 lawmakers out of a total of 158 voted against it.)

Abortion is still not legal in Ireland if the baby has a fatal fetal abnormality.

All that will change if the 8th is repealed. The government, supported by the major opposition parties, has made it clear that legislation allowing unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy will be rapidly passed.

The forecast for the weekend is blistering sunshine, and you can feel the tension in the air. The streets of Dublin will explode on Saturday whatever result is announced; “Yes” campaigners are just hoping it’s a party along the lines of what the city saw after the gay marriage referendum—not a wake.