Less than two weeks before a historic vote on whether to allow increased access to abortion in Ireland, thousands of people gathered on Saturday for a final pro-life rally in the capital city of Dublin.

The atmosphere among the crowds was “cautiously optimistic,” Paul MacAree, a radio producer for EWTN Ireland, told CNA. Recent polls have shown that as much as 18 percent of Ireland’s Catholic-majority population is still undecided on their referendum vote.

“We’ve got about a 78 percent Catholic population, but unfortunately the Catholic population is very poorly catechized when it comes to understanding these issues,” MacAree said.

On May 25, Irish citizens will vote whether they want to repeal the country’s eighth amendment, which recognizes the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child. Under current law, the practice of abortion in Ireland is illegal, unless the mother’s health is endangered. Pro-life Irish citizens are encouraging a “no” vote on the referendum.

The eighth amendment was passed in Ireland in 1983, with upwards of 67 percent voter-approval. It reads, in part: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

There is already legislation being proposed which, pending the outcome of the referendum and approval by parliament, would grant unlimited access to abortions up to 12 weeks of gestation.

Pro-life activist Dr. Ruth Cullen, of the LoveBoth campaign in Ireland, told the Belfast Telegraph that the government’s proposal would enable abortion on demand in the country.

“There is nothing restrictive about the Government’s proposals on abortion,” she said. “A ‘No’ vote on 25th May is the only way to avoid abortion on demand in Ireland.”

“It’s really encouraging though the way people are starting to scrutinise the Government’s proposals and see for themselves just how extreme it is,” she added.

The proposal would “entirely remove all legal protection from every single child in this country for the first twelve weeks of his or her existence, and for the full term in the womb in certain cases,” Bishop Brendan Kelly of Galway said in a May statement on the referendum. “This is what we will be saying ‘Yes’ to if we place our ‘X’ in the ‘Yes’ box on the ballot paper in the Referendum to remove the 8th Amendment from our Constitution,” he said.

Saturday’s rally was only the latest in a series of “heroic” efforts on the part of the pro-life movement in Ireland, MacAree said, including several regional rallies held last month, and a large pro-life rally in March with some 100,000 attendees.

“The pro-life groups have been absolutely heroic in Ireland in the sense of the thousands and thousands of doors they’ve been knocking on to explain (their position), they’ve trained people to go out in street and also in the media, the pro-life groups have been absolutely exceptional,” he said.

MacAree also noted that young people and families “feature strongly at our rallies, which is wonderful,” he said, adding that it can be difficult for young people to be pro-life, due to pressures from the prevailing pro-choice views at colleges and universities.

Last year, a Sunday Times poll reported that 37% of 18- to 34-year-olds supported allowing abortion with no restrictions, compared to 31% of 35- to 54-year-olds.

Polling in February showed growing opposition to increasing abortion access in the country. A Sunday Times “Behavior and Attitudes” poll showed that support for abortions beyond three-months gestation fell from 51 percent to 43 percent, while opposition to changing the country’s abortion laws rose from 27 percent to 35 percent.

“These new figures represent a notional 16 percent swing towards opposition in a two-week period,” Niamh Ui Bhriain, a spokesman for the pro-life campaign Savethe8th, said at the time.

“This tallies with the experience of our campaign, which has been that the more people find out about the government’s extreme proposal, the more they reject it,” Ui Bhriain added.

There has also been “an extraordinary amount of prayer going on, there’s been so many initiatives,” MacAree said, including a 54-day rosary novena campaign launched by EWTN Ireland which was shown on TV spots throughout the world, appealing for prayer.

The bishops have also made several “fantastic” statements, although many Irish Catholics have not read them, and priests have struggled to address the referendum at the parish level, MacAree said.  

“Pray for us!” MacAree added. “We’re going to need what I call ‘the nuclear option’ - we need the Holy Spirit.”

“But we are cautiously optimistic, because we really don’t know how it’s going to go.”