Tomorrow, Irish voters will go to the polls to decide whether to allow the legislature to legalize abortion in one of two EU states where it remains almost entirely forbidden. (Malta is the other.) The final day of the campaign has seen the arguments coming to sharp points on both sides, commensurate with the stakes involved. That may be a sign that the referendum, which was widely expected to pass easily, may have more opposition than some thought:

The Irish will vote on Friday whether to scrap the Eighth Amendment to their constitution, passed in 1983, which gives “the unborn” and the mother “the equal right to life” and outlaws almost all abortions — even in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality and risk to maternal health.

Ireland, for centuries guided and dominated by the Catholic Church, its culture and its priests, has one of the strictest abortion bans in the developed world. Seeking or providing an abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Since 2013, there has been an exception for when a mother’s life is at risk.

If the repeal wins, Ireland’s political leadership has promised that parliament would quickly pass a new law guaranteeing unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, and beyond that in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities or serious risks to a mother’s health. That’s in line, more or less, with the other 27 members of European Union.

What about the Catholic Church? Culturally, their influence remains strong, but in this debate, they’ve played a very low-key role in opposing the referendum. Some wonder whether they’ve gone entirely AWOL:

In the U.S., Catholic bishops and priests are prominent figures in the antiabortion movement, appearing at the annual March for Life in Washington and praying in front of abortion clinics. By contrast, Irish clergy have played a generally low-key role, appealing to the faithful to keep the ban through sermons and handouts at Sunday Mass but staying largely out of the public debate.

That reticence reflects an increasing public resistance to appeals to traditional faith, partly due to a wave of church-related scandals, ranging from clerical child abuse to church-run homes for unmarried mothers, where many were forced to give up their children for adoption.

“The church has to pay the price for the failures of priests and religious and bishops in the past,” says Bishop Kevin Doran, chairman of the Irish bishops conference’s committee for bioethics. “But we still have to continue calling for justice for the unborn.”

In the final days of the referendum debate, however, some in the church have taken a more assertive public stance. Bishop John Buckley pointed out in a statement that a “Yes” vote on the referendum would leave unborn children in Ireland with fewer legal protections than animals get under Ireland’s Wildlife Act:

Unborn children will have less protection than some animals under Irish law if the country’s Eighth Amendment is overturned, warned an Irish bishop ahead of Ireland’s May 25th abortion referendum.

“It is remarkable that the State, which, under the Wildlife Act, has so many legal protections for non-human life, is trying to remove the most basic right of the child in the womb,” said Bishop John Buckley of Cork and Ross in a May 19 statement. …

As the nation approaches the referendum, the bishop said the choice facing the Irish people “is quite clear.”

“The right to life in the Constitution will be replaced by the right to end the life of an innocent person. The unborn baby will be left with no protection whatsoever,” he said.

Crux notes that other bishops have joined in issuing statements, some with prophetic warnings of what is to come:

The Armagh archbishop warned Ireland can expect “a very liberal abortion regime” if the referendum passes, and his Dublin counterpart said repealing the Eighth Amendment would “bring about a radical change to our broad pro-life culture.”

Bishop Kevin Doran noted that the “health care” argument for abortion is nonsense:

Without abortion, Ireland is a world leader in healthcare for women and their babies. No matter what you may hear, women do not die because of the Eighth Amendment. Ireland has one of the lowest levels of maternal mortality in the world. This is a fact based on international research carried out by the World Health Organization.

Speaking of health care, it’s not just the church weighing in, either. Catholic News Service ran an unsigned letter from a British physician urging Ireland not to repeat the UK’s mistake from fifty years earlier. When legalization passed, the intent was to make abortion safe, legal, and rare, and to allow health care workers to exercise conscience protections in order to avoid taking part in the process. It turned into a disaster:

Readily available abortion also has had huge implications for health care in this country. When Lord Steel brought the bill in 1967, a conscience clause was made for the many doctors and nurses who did not wish to be involved. It has become increasingly hard for pro-life professionals to navigate a career in some branches of health care.

Two Scottish midwives recently lost their jobs because they refused to supervise medical abortions. I have asked to remain anonymous due to fear of similar repercussions. This in itself perhaps tells you how far things have gone. …

And what of the legacy of abortion in the U.K.? Well, in 50 years, nearly 9,000,000 abortions have been carried out. We have a significant number of women who have repeated abortions and use it as a means of contraception. In 2014, the U.K. had the highest teenage birth rates in western Europe.

We have a high prevalence of domestic abuse directed in main toward women. We have rapidly increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases and have consistently been in the top five countries in Europe for rates of chlamydia, herpes, HPV, hepatitis C and gonorrhea. We have a society that displays an inconsistent stance toward the weakest and most vulnerable. We have health care professionals who are afraid of publicly declaring their personal beliefs when at variance with the status quo.

Ireland, please do not follow the U.K. down this path — we have got this so very wrong.

Expect the arguments to get even sharper. The Guardian noted on Sunday that pollsters have seen a marked shift to No over the last few weeks, and now expect the outcome to be razor-thin either way. And recent experience in the UK and in the US in polling might indicate that the No vote will come in stronger than pollsters can measure:

The campaign began with a clear lead for the Yes campaigners, who support a repeal. But in a country where tradition and the church still have strong influence, the No camp has gained ground. Now the final result is expected to hinge on the one in five voters still undecided.

“Obviously, we look at Brexit and Trump and think the media don’t always get it right any more. Or they are projecting one way to advance their own goal,” said Emer Tóibín, of the Meath for Life campaign, which opposes a repeal.

She believes the narrowing in polls is due in part to campaigners sidestepping newspapers and television to reach voters more directly. “So much of the country had been fed one side of the story,” she says in a cafe near her home in the county town Navan. “Freedom of speech is not alive and kicking.”

She is stepping up the campaign in the run-up to the poll, determined to reach undecided voters and those “reluctant to discuss their views” – the elusive “silent majority” credited in both British and American upsets.

We discussed the free-speech issues at hand ten days ago. That issue should, and likely will, outlast the referendum tomorrow. It would be ironic indeed if the Facebook-Google collusion to hamper pro-life activism in Ireland ended up backfiring by forcing a face-to-face debate on even terms.

The people of Ireland have a tough choice ahead of them, and prayers for wisdom and mercy would be appropriate. There is pain and heartache on both sides of this issue, none of which should be dismissed or minimized, but at the core of this debate is whether human life should be defended in all its stages or only valued for its utility. If the repeal does fail, perhaps it will prompt more efforts to provide support and care for those pregnant and in despair over their situation. That would be preferable to a proliferation of clinics that sell nothing but despair dressed up as “freedom” …. as Americans have discovered to our everlasting shame in the forty-five years since Roe v Wade.