DUBLIN, Ireland -- There is a depressed and beleaguered young girl somewhere in this city who has shaken Ireland to its roots.
She is 14 years old and pregnant through rape, which is why she goes unidentified in the news media. She has been prevented by the Irish High Court from traveling to England for an abortion.
The pain of her predicament projects itself across the nation. It is seen as a vengeful contrivance by fate, the worst possible outcome predicted by those who opposed a constitutional amendment that prohibits abortion. A referendum in 1983 approved the measure.
The world sees Ireland today as a backward and reactionary land because of this. The voices of Ireland on all sides are full of anguish, confusion and shame.
"We feel we've become the laughingstock of the civilized world," said Dr. James Loughran, who runs a family planning clinic in Dublin. "It is very degrading for us to be considered as such."
Dr. Mary F. Lucey, the president of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, feels besieged. Reporters call her from every part of the world; they dog her at her home in Kilkernan.
"It is all blown up," Dr. Lucey said. "We are seen as criminals in an unkind, a heartless country, a Ceausescu-style country," she said, referring to the overthrown Romanian ruler.
Two women, Monica Corish and Yvonne Lynch, picket Leinster House, the Irish Parliament building, on Kildlare Street in the cold wind.
Inside, the leaders of Ireland's political parties grapple with the dilemma before them. Their words are rich in sympathy for the young girl. But to some their behavior in crisis seems a little unreal.
The same government that restrained her through the action of its attorney general, Harry Whelehan, urged her to appeal to the Supreme Court against the High Court's injunction. The Supreme Court will hear the case this week.
The government, headed by the new prime minister, Albert Reynolds, promises to pay her legal fees, which means the government is paying to have itself sued.
If the Supreme Court does not overturn the injunction and allow her to leave the country, the government has pledged to provide free medical and psychiatric care to help the victim bring her pregnancy to term. The girl has hinted at suicide, which makes the case so much more painful.
"It is all so crazy, so Alice-in-Wonderlandish," said 70-year-old Sean Mac Reamoinn. "It is the result of years of slovenly thinking and self- deception. This situation was bound to come."
He doubts that the High Court justice, Declan Costello, had the authority to prevent the girl from traveling, a right enshrined in European Community law. A priest who is also a lawyer, the Rev. Bernard Treacy, questions the "extraterritorial" reach of the decision. Abortion is not a crime in Britain.
Judge not blamed
Yet, the judge is not blamed, nor is the attorney general. This is what makes the dilemma so sore, the escape from it so elusive. It is the absence of certain villains, except for the alleged 42-year-old rapist, who has not yet been charged. But authorities say he will be. He is identified only as the father of one of the victim's friends.
An unusual march of circumstance brought this case to the fore. Most Irish women seeking an abortion, some 5,000 to 7,000 a year, quietly go to Britain for the procedure that's banned here. The family of the girl in question, from the middle-class community of Rathmanham, openly told the police they were going. They inquired because they wanted to know if the surviving fetal tissue could be used as evidence against the rapist.
Apprised of this, the attorney general sought an injunction. The family was already in Britain when the injunction was issued by Justice Costello. Being "good, honest citizens," as one observer put it, they returned and put themselves in the hands of the law.
Although a few doubt the wisdom of the High Court decision, and some are angry that the attorney general did not just look the other way, most of the anger and emotion is turned inward.
Laws called silly
"The villain is the Irish people, and these silly sectarian laws," said Dick Spicer, head of the Campaign to Separate Church and State.
"We can't blame them," says the picketing Ms. Corish, indicating the politicians inside Leinster House. "Basically it is our problem."
She advocates the most decisive form of resolution. It is the one the politicians and many older people are afraid of reaching for: another referendum on abortion.
Rock singer Sinead O'Connor -- after a little fortification in Buswell's Hotel bar -- joined the pickets Thursday night, then got in to see Prime Minister Reynolds to request help not only for the girl, but for all those thousands of other Irish women who slip off to London for abortions. She was on the street again Saturday, part of a large crowd of demonstrators outside the General Post Office.
"The people created this situation," said Ms. O'Connor. "And the people must go on to the streets to do something to change it."
According to those who experienced it, the referendum of 1983 that put the anti-abortion law into the constitution was the worst thing to happen to Ireland since the civil war that tore the country after the state was established in 1922.
"People ripped each other's posters down, cursed each other in the streets," recalls Dr. McLoughran.
Mr. Spicer remembers the venom that flowed. He is not eager to see it again. He believes it would put an end to all social progress.
"We're at a crossroads here," Mr. Spicer said. "Ireland is trying to become a modern state. Another referendum on abortion could just stop it in its tracks."
Not everyone is so reluctant. Jon O'Brien was too young to have been active in 1983, though he was told it was "a vicious and bloody battle."
Speaking for the Irish Family Planning Association, he said: "We have the new blood to fight this. We don't have the scars from the last campaign."
He adds, with emphasis: "I believe a majority of the Irish people do not want abortion on demand in this country." Therefore, he said, any referendum would be to remove the anti-abortion amendment from the constitution. It would not be to legalize abortion in Ireland.
Sentiment for revision
(A poll published here yesterday by the Sunday Independent reported that two-thirds of Irish people want the anti-abortion amendment revised to allow for a restricted and limited right to abortion. The poll also indicated strong disapproval of the injunction prohibiting the girl from traveling.)
Dr. Lucey views the prospect of another referendum with weary apprehension. "I would hope we wouldn't have it. It is costly and divisive. But I would do my best in it."
The last such referendum in Ireland was in 1985, on divorce. It was as bad as the 1983 vote on abortion. It resulted in a constitutional prohibition on divorce.
And it had another consequence: Many of those who lost on these two major social questions became convinced that the most retrogressive force in Irish life is the Catholic Church.
Although the Roman Catholic Church has not spoken out on the issue of the girl from Rathmanham, there is little doubt that as an institution it favors keeping the anti-abortion amendment in the constitution. Which is not to say all clergy do. Also, the church is aware of the damage done to it by referendums on such emotional issues.
Father Treacy recalled that the anti-abortion amendment was not initiated by the church, but by right-to-life organizations like Dr. Lucey's. He suspects the church may have lost more in terms of esteem and loyalty than it ever gained doctrinely by the victory.
The referendum "created feelings of hysteria, feelings of great anger," he recalled. "One can't say it was a positive experience for the church."