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Long read - A nation divided: Ireland's abortion dilemma

21 May

Ireland is at a crossroads: On 25 May the Irish people will decide whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment and end a constitutional ban on abortion.

It will bring to a head one of the most bitterly contested battlegrounds in Irish culture over recent decades. There have been six referendums on the matter of abortion in the past 35 years, but this week's vote will prove the most seminal yet: it will decide whether to allow unrestricted abortion in Ireland up to 12 weeks.
For the No side, the rights of the unborn are sacrosanct and must be protected. For the Yes side, Irish women must be treated with compassion and afforded abortion care at home.
:: Sky Views - Ireland's abortion vote has reopened old wounds
For both sides, the vote is a test about how secular and liberal Ireland is prepared to be. It is more than just a battle over abortion rights - it's a battle over Ireland's identity and values too.
As the campaign intensifies, both sides are travelling across the country in an effort to win over a large swathe of undecided voters.
A poll out last week put the repeal side 12 points ahead, with 44% of voters now in favour of changing abortion laws and 32% against, according to the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll. But 17% of the population are undecided and the No side believes it is in striking distance of delivering a big upset.
:: Ireland abortion referendum: 'Unborn babies are human beings'
:: Why Ireland's abortion laws punish women
"I do think we're going to win," says Tim Jackson, a Save the Eight campaigner at the end of a long day on the road, canvassing in rural towns Carlow, Kilkenny and Castlecomer. "The Yes side are falling in the polls all the time and the No side has all the momentum."
In the repeal stronghold of Dublin campaigners are nervous too. On a canvass in south Dublin, one volunteer told me she's worried: "I think we will win but I think it will be very tight. It's such an emotive issue people don't want to express their feelings. A lot of people don't want to be known as a No voter."
On the doorsteps and in the streets, both sides are emphasising what they think is their strongest card in the hope of winning over undecided voters.
Those in the Save the Eighth team are playing on fears that liberalising the law will lead to a spike in abortion and the death of tens of thousands of unborn children.
Posters hammering those messages adorn the lamp posts around Dublin and other towns. "In England one in five babies are aborted. Don't bring this to Ireland." There are also pictures of giant foetuses with the caption: "A licence to kill? Vote No to abortion on demand."
Those in favour of repeal speak of the need to offer women more compassion and care.
They highlight the tragic cases of abortion - where a woman is pregnant with a baby that has a fatal foetal abnormality or has been raped - to press home why it is time to overhaul Ireland's draconian abortion laws.
:: Opinion: 'I had to put my baby's remains in the freezer'
Amy and Conor Callaghan are one of those cases. The couple, who have a little boy called Finn, were forced to travel to Liverpool to terminate their unborn baby daughter Nico after the 12-week scan revealed that she had a fatal condition called anencephaly, which had left their baby without the top of her head.
"It's not something we wanted to have tell people but it's something we felt we had to tell people at this point in time," explains Conor on the couple's decision to go public with their very personal story of grief and loss.
"It was nearly a year ago now but a few weeks ago with the campaign kicking off we walked out the door one day and found a poster in front of our house with a picture of a foetus on it and 'a license to kill' written on it and we felt that was very cruel.
"I understand this a matter for public debate. But I think it's difficult for the other side to see the pain that this campaign is causing for people who have been affected by the Eighth Amendment in a very real way."
"For me it's everyday thinking we should have a five-month-old now," added Amy. "I don't feel guilty, because I think we made the right decision but I feel maybe there's a sense of judgement there from other people."
To understand Ireland's abortion laws you have to go back to 1983 when the country voted to insert a pro-life amendment into its constitution.
Activist Ailbhe Smyth remembers the 1983 vote well. She campaigned vociferously to stop a pro-life amendment being inserted into the Irish constitution - and lost.
"It was really divisive and at times felt really brutal," she recalled of the 1983 referendum campaign. "I got horrible things; posters stuck on my car, calls in the middle of the night. People reciting the rosary down the phone.
"The establishment, an elite group of right wing doctors and lawyers, decided it wasn't enough to prevent abortion becoming more of a reality in Ireland and they decided to lobby government to ensure they would have an amendment put into the constitution to copper fasten the proclamation against abortion."
Thirty-five years on, and the Catholic hierarchy is watching the campaign with studied detachment. This time around, pro-life campaigners are framing their arguments around human rights rather than religious teaching.
"For me, abortion is nothing to do with faith to be honest with you," says pro-life campaigner and radio host Wendy Grace. "I don't think you need to be of any particular faith to say it's wrong to end another human being's life."
Vicky Wall, who discovered her unborn child had the rare genetic disorder Edward's syndrome at 23 weeks, believes passionately that abortion should remain illegal in Ireland.
:: Opinion: Mum told to 'pop to England' says 'abortion was not an option'
Her daughter Líadán died in the womb at 32 weeks. She is adamant that abortion was never an option for her and believes that the Eighth Amendment protected her rights as a mother to continue her pregnancy.
A leading voice in the Save the Eighth campaign, she is unwilling to give other women in a similar situation to her a choice to terminate their pregnancies in Ireland.
"We have to look at what the choice entails," she said. "We are looking a choice to end a unique human life and I don't think that choice is a reasonable choice.
"I don't think a human life should be simply be down to being unwanted or not and yes it's much so difficult for women in those positions but again I talk about support and that but the bottom line is I am extremely pro-life."
:: Narrow support for abortion ahead of Irish referendum
The Catholic Church's influence has been in decline in recent decades, yet it still has some influence over voters in a country where 87% of the population identifies as being Catholic.
A recent Sky poll found that 47% of 977 respondents backed unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, with 37% opposing such a change.
But faith made a big difference in those responses. When it came to Catholics, 45% were in support and 40% opposed, while those with no religion were strongly in favour of liberalising abortion laws, with 69% in favour of the 12-week rule.
Out on the road and in Sunday mass, the church is making its presence felt, with Carlow's local priest Father Ruairí O'Domhnaill - flanked by two nuns - turning up to greet the Save the Eighth campaign bus.
"I'm concerned," Father Ruairí explained when I asked him how he was feeling about the vote. "I think everyone is concerned if the Eighth Amendment is removed because the path will be to give abortion for everyone up to 12 weeks so that means healthy women and healthy children and I just don't think Irish people are ready for that or prepared for that."
I asked him if voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment made you a bad Catholic. "I would say to anyone who considers themselves Catholic who are considering voting yes that they need to seriously ask themselves what they believe.
"The heart of our Christian faith is that God took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and that he took on the human condition. That he was a living human being in the womb of Mary and it's fairly hard for anyone who would say that if they believed that to then say they didn't believe that he didn't have a right to be born."
No voters' language on the street is laden with faith too. One women on the street in Kilkenny said abortion was "murder" and "against the ten commandments".
Another said abortion was "against the law of God and nature". "I am angry with people when they say 'our bodies are our own'. Of course they are but God brought us into the world and God will take us out of it."
But back in Dublin, there is a more counter-narrative of solidarity amongst women too as those affected by abortion able to speak out and swap their stories.
Campaigner Tara Flynn concedes that her decision to end an unwanted pregnancy when she was 37 years old - she's now 49 - is the "sort of everyday" experience that may not attract much sympathy, but said she was determined to end the stigma and the shame that engulfs this debate.
Ms Flynn said that speaking publicly of her own abortion at a music festival in 2016 had prompted many women to speak out too.
"That's when I realised the warmth out there for people who have already travelled - for people that have travelled with them. People are keeping secrets in this country and have been for a long time."
This referendum has prompted a painful national conversation and an outpouring of personal grief that has divided families, friends and communities.
In its journey to become a more secular state, Ireland has voted for divorce and gay marriage - but when it comes to abortion, views are deep-rooted and keenly felt, with both sides deeply invested in their cause.
And with the result uncertain, one thing feels very clear: a lasting peace in Ireland's long-fought battle over abortion feels a very long way off.

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Ireland abortion debate: 'I had to put my baby's remains in the freezer'

21 May

As those on both sides of Ireland's abortion debate continue to campaign on the issue, those directly affected have been sharing their stories.

A referendum will be held on Friday on whether or not to repeal the country's Eighth Amendment, which gives equal right to life to the mother and the unborn child.
Here, Amy and Conor Callaghan share their harrowing story with Sky News after they discovered their unborn baby daughter had a fatal condition at their 12-week scan.
Amy: This time last year we were expecting our second child, who we named Nico. We were excited - a little worried about how we'd handle two kids - but excited.
So I went for the scan and the first few seconds were joy, you see the little blob and you hear the heartbeat, you know it's there and then I just knew when the doctor was quiet and said nothing that this wasn't good news.
She said "I'm really sorry your baby has a condition called anencephaly". It's a neural tube defect and our baby had no top of the head. She explained that the baby was probably going to pass away in the uterus.
She explained that some babies do go full-term and if they do go full-term and you give birth, they're likely to die while you're giving birth and that if the baby didn't die when you were giving birth it was going to be a few minutes or an hour or two.
At that stage I started thinking about our son Finn and when he was born and you know when you give birth, the head is a really important part of that and I was thinking about this baby, about Nico.
I started to think this wasn't a kind way to die and I was thinking about myself having to spend the next six months of people asking me about how far along I was and trying to explain to Finn that I was pregnant but there was never going to be a baby.
Before all this happened I would have known that abortion was illegal here in most cases but I thought really in a case that was so severe where a baby was missing most of its brain, where the amniotic fluid was wearing the brain down until she died, I really thought they would be able to help more.
They said we could end the pregnancy early and they could fax the paperwork to Liverpool. I just felt abandoned.
Conor: I booked the flights and we managed to find a babysitter for our son because we needed to go overnight. We flew out on a Ryanair flight with stag parties and hen parties and other women as well. We wondered if there were any other women on the plane and sure enough when we got to the clinic, yes there were people there.
Amy: I had a surgical abortion so I was put under and they gave us Nico's remains in a box when we left. We stayed in an airport hotel and the next day, took our baby's remains to the airport and flew home.
Conor: That was probably the lowest point. We had to pass Nico's remains through the X-ray machine and walk through security. And Amy turned to me and said what if they ask us to open the box? And I just said they won't, they know. But I didn't know at the time.
Amy: So we got home and I suppose again it was one of those situations where there is no guidance from anyone, no one told us what you do when you get back. We knew enough to ring the hospital here about my mental health and my physical health but we had Nico's remains and so we put Nico's remains in our freezer.
Conor: I started looking into what our options were. We looked into funerals and cremations but nothing seemed to suit our situation. We had a tiny cardboard box and we didn't really know what to do and in the end we felt that we didn't really have to follow anyone's rules any more.
We didn't really get any support so we could make our own rules. So we got in the car one day and we drove down the country to a place we really liked, somewhere peaceful and we buried Nico's remains and we went to the family, we hugged, we cried a bit and we said goodbye.

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Grenfell Tower inquiry to begin with poignant tributes to 72 who died in blaze

21 May

Almost a year since the Grenfell Tower fire, the first phase of the public inquiry will open on Monday and start with tributes for the 72 victims.

From taxi drivers to architects, the very young to the elderly, big families to working singletons; each victim will be remembered over the course of the next two weeks.
Relatives and friends of those who died will have the opportunity to paint a picture of their loved ones in a video recording or personal testimony in front of the retired judge chairing the inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick.
Each one will be streamed live from the hearing which is taking place at the Millennium Gloucester hotel in South Kensington, London.
There will be specialist counselling available during the hearings, a prayer room for those observing Ramadan and NHS staff on hand to ensure those grieving have the support they need.
Nabil Choucair lost six members of his family in the west London tower block fire. His mother, Sirria, was 60 years old and lived on the 22 floor of the tower. On the same level lived his sister, Nadia, brother in law, Bassem, and their three daughters, Mierna, 13, Fatima, 11 and Zainab, three.
He has decided to make a video tribute to them with the help of a dedicated production company.
He said: "I would always see my mother first. She couldn't wait to empty her fridge and offer you food, even if you had already eaten. She wanted to make sure her son wasn't missing anything.
"Then I would go and see my sister and Bassem and they would also offer me food! They were such an amazing family. So kind and generous. Even to this day I'm getting people come up to me and talk about them."
He added: "Mierna was the eldest of the girls and would guide the others. She was very bright and you could see her talent developing. Fatima was the sporty one and had a skill which was so strong for her age.
"Zainab was a special child. She was becoming so strong and wouldn't take no for an answer. She loved nursery rhymes and they were so beautiful when they came out of her mouth."
Nabil lives in east London with his wife and three children. He has spent almost every day since the fire travelling to Kensington to meet lawyers, councillors or campaign groups.
He is exhausted and his grief is so raw. But he says he is determined to get justice for his family and make sure their memory lives on.
He said: "Time has gone so quick but it's barely moved from our end. It's as if it happened today. They were were such a caring family, and loved everyone around them. I only have memories of them now, nothing more than memories and video footage."
There has been no time limit put on the individual tributes; some are expected to last a few minutes and others up to an hour.
The inquiry is believed to have the largest number of core participants to date, with more than 500 survivors, bereaved families and friends, and members of the North Kensington community participating.
After the commemoration hearings, the public inquiry will move location to the Holborn Bars in central London and the main evidential sessions will begin.
This will focus on the outbreak of the fire on 14 June last year and the sequence of events on the night. There will be a pause in the inquiry on the week of the anniversary.

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Meghan Markle outlines royal plans as newlyweds head back to work

21 May

Meghan Markle has laid out her royal plans as she and Prince Harry prepare to carry out their first official engagement as husband and wife.

The Duchess of Sussex now has her own page on the official royal.uk website, with a short biography that emphasises her charity work and downplays her acting career.
The site confirms that Meghan will undertake royal duties in support of the Queen both in the UK and overseas.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have left Windsor after their wedding was watched by millions around the world on Saturday.
It was not confirmed where they were heading on Sunday evening, but their official residence is Nottingham Cottage on the grounds of Kensington Palace in London.
Best man William and his wife Kate were pictured leaving Windsor wearing dark glasses on Sunday afternoon following a reception at which the happy couple were said by The Sun to have danced to Whitney Houston's I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
Another report suggested Idris Elba was DJing.
The destination of the honeymoon has not yet been confirmed but it is expected to be Namibia or Botswana in southern Africa.
That will have to wait until after Tuesday, when the couple are attending a Buckingham Palace reception with Charles and Camilla to mark the Prince of Wales's 70th birthday.
Meghan has already said she is determined to "hit the ground running" as she becomes a full-time royal.
Meghan's famous speech to a United Nations conference in 2015, in which she announced she was "proud to be a woman and a feminist", features prominently on her page on the Royal Family website.
A short biography explains that the Duchess of Sussex "had a keen awareness of social issues and actively participated in charitable work" from a young age.
It also touches on how an 11-year-old Meghan successfully campaigned for a sexist washing-up liquid advert to be changed.
The Duchess of Sussex also volunteered at a soup kitchen in Los Angeles between the ages of 13 and 17.
The only nod to Meghan's former acting career comes when it is explained that she volunteered at another soup kitchen "while filming in Toronto" between 2012 and 2013.
Meghan went on to become the UN Women's Advocate for Women's Political Participation and Leadership in 2015.
The biography then details her work with World Vision, revealing that she completed a learning mission with the charity in 2017 to "bring a greater awareness to girls' lack of access to education".
Meghan went on to write a piece for Time magazine about the stigmatisaton of menstrual health management and its effect on girls' education.
The Myna Mahila Foundation will benefit from charity donations made to the royal wedding.
Meanwhile, dress designer Clare Waight Keller has revealed that Prince Harry thanked her for making his wife "look absolutely stunning".
The pure white gown featured a five-metre long veil made from silk tulle, with hand-embroidered flowers from each of the 53 Commonwealth countries.
Harry and Meghan woke up as husband and wife on Sunday morning after enjoying a reception at Frogmore House on Saturday night.

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Man shot dead as Dublin police search for missing woman

21 May

A 24-year-old woman remains missing after a man was shot dead by police investigating a suspected abduction.

The Gardai said they "interacted" with the driver of a vehicle, thought to be aged 40, at around 8pm on Sunday in south Dublin.
They were searching for a missing woman who may have been abducted after being forced into a car in Co. Wicklow.
Jastine Valdez, 24, from Enniskerry in the county but originally from the Philippines and studying in Ireland, was last seen when she left her home on Saturday afternoon.
A Garda statement said: "Gardai investigating the disappearance of Jastine Valdez interacted with the driver of a vehicle at approximately 8pm this evening the 20th May 2018 in the Cherrywood area of Dublin.
"An official Garda firearm was discharged."
A Garda helicopter, cars, support units, and ambulances were at the scene of the shooting at the business park.
Irish broadcaster RTE said the dead man was armed with a knife and was a father-of-two from the Wicklow area.
A Garda statement said she normally regularly contacted her family using social media.
"Contact has stopped so we are very, extremely concerned for her safety. If anybody can help us to locate her we would very much appreciate it."
Gardai told RTE she was on her way home to Enniskerry when the suspected abduction happened.
"We are looking at that at the moment, trying to clarify her last movements on CCTV and taking statements from witnesses.
"We have a large investigation team working on it."
She was reported missing by her family late on Saturday.
Ms Valdez is around 5ft, of slight build with long black hair and brown eyes. When last seen she was wearing a dark coloured jacket, white T-shirt, grey leggings and trainers.

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