ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Ireland used to be one of the most socially conservative nations in Europe. Lately that's been changing. In 2015, voters legalized same-sex marriage. During last year's election, the country voted in a gay, biracial prime minister. And this summer, the Catholic country will vote on whether to repeal one of the strictest abortion laws in the Western world. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Dublin; there have been calls for this change for many years.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: They held candles and signs that read never again - some 2,000 people protesting the death of Savita Halappanavar outside government buildings here in 2012. The dentist from India died after doctors refused to perform an abortion while she was miscarrying. Taking the microphone, Sinead Redmond of the group Parents for Choice demanded change.
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SINEAD REDMOND: Savita Halappanavar is dead unnecessarily, and we are all complicit while the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution remains in place.
LANGFITT: Now, five years on, Irish citizens will finally have a chance to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the country's constitution which only permits abortion in exceptional cases, such as to save the life of the mother. Ailbhe Smyth, who was among the protesters that night, says Halappanavar's death was a turning point.
AILBHE SMYTH: The impact was absolutely huge.
LANGFITT: Smyth runs a group of more than a hundred organizations that pushed for the referendum.
SMYTH: People were so profoundly shocked that there was an enormously strong emotional reaction so that the whole country was very aware yet again that we had failed a woman.
LANGFITT: Most Irish women seeking abortions go to England. In 2016, they numbered more than 700 according to the Department of Health in England and Wales. In a survey last month, The Irish Times found that 62 percent of people here want to change the Constitution and allow greater access to abortion. Halappanavar's death isn't the only reason attitudes towards abortion and other social issues are changing. Smyth says revelations about decades of sex abuse in Catholic schools has had a big impact as well.
SMYTH: The authority of the Catholic Church here has been very seriously undermined, and Irish people now have a much more independent approach to the practice of their religion and tend to say, my conscience matters most.
LANGFITT: Turtle Bunbury says before the scandal, the church genuinely scared people. Bunbury's the author of a series of books about the country's changing culture called "Vanishing Ireland." We chatted in a Dublin pub.
TURTLE BUNBURY: A lot of the people I met and interviewed grew up living in F-E-A-R, full-on fear of Beelzebub and that they would burn in hell. And then before their eyes, they started watching the Catholic Church start to crumble.
LANGFITT: And with it went much of the Church's moral authority. Bunbury said outside influences also made Ireland more liberal.
BUNBURY: As it's an island, we've had for many long centuries an experience of going abroad. And they go off, and they spend time in Australia or America or England.
LANGFITT: Many emigrants came home during the economic boom of the 1990s, bringing with them new, more liberal ideas.
CAROLE HOLOHAN: My name is Carole Holohan, and I am an assistant lecturer in modern Irish history in Trinity College.
LANGFITT: Holohan says around that time, university became free, and foreign investment poured into the country.
HOLOHAN: So when I think of social change in Ireland, yes, I do think of the Catholic Church, but I also think of the economy and how the place has changed very rapidly in the space of one or two generations.
LANGFITT: For some older people, that change has been too fast and in the wrong direction. Leaving church one Sunday morning in Dublin, Mona McSweeney lamented what she sees as a decline in social mores with the rise in everything from divorce to petty crime.
MONA MCSWEENEY: I'm definitely going to vote against abortion. I really don't approve of it at all. I feel we've had contraception and - contraception, so you shouldn't need to have a child that you didn't want.
LANGFITT: McSweeney, though, doesn't think her views will prevail. She expects Irish voters to repeal the country's anti-abortion amendment later this year. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Dublin.
[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we say that Irish voters elected a gay, biracial prime minister. In fact, Leo Varadkar was chosen by members of the governing party, Fine Gael, to be leader of their party after the election — and he became Ireland's taoiseach (prime minister) as a result of that party vote.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.