Irish PM Endorses Gay Marriage, Vows to Have Referendum. Why That's a Big Deal.

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny announced his support for same-sex marriage Tuesday, and promised to hold a referendum on the issue in 2015. Kenny, the leader of an almost 90 percent Catholic country, had previously been silent on this issue, while his deputy prime minister had called for a referendum. This is not the Irish leader's first clash with Catholic authorities: he has also been condemned for loosening of abortion restrictions — namely, to protect the life of the mother — earlier this year.

The vote on equal marriage in Ireland will be part of a larger day of referendums in the country. Also on the table that day (called Constitution Day) is a bid to abolish Ireland's blasphemy laws. Referring to the vote on marriage, though, Kenny spoke of the "equality issue of gay marriage." "I support that very strongly and we'll campaign for that when it comes," Kenny said. Damn straight.

Catholic Bishop Denis Nulty swiftly responded, saying that male and female differences were "not accidental to marriage but fundamental to it." Nulty also repeated the old adage about a child's "natural right to a mother and a father," despite studies that have shown no difference in outcomes between children raised by gay and straight couples. (Gay people can already adopt as single parents in Ireland, and same-sex couples can foster children.)

"The church will participate fully in the democratic debate leading up to the referendum and will seek with others to reaffirm the rational basis for holding that marriage should be reserved for the unique and complimentary relationship between a woman and a man from which the generation and upbringing of children is uniquely possible," Nulty said.

Over the summer, Kenny (a devout catholic, by the way) and his coalition government introduced a bill to allow limited abortion in Ireland. Specifically, it would allow a woman to terminate her pregnancy if continuing it would result in her death, or if the pregnancy puts her at serious risk of suicide. The proposal came alongside statistics that over 4000 Irish women travel to the United Kingdom each year to get abortions, and after the death of a 31-year-old Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, who died after being denied an abortion. The bill did not have a provision for abortion in the case of rape, but passed and became law. As Bustle reported in September, the law has already saved lives:

Ireland’s first legal abortion took place in a Dublin hospital ... The procedure marks the first pregnancy termination carried out under Ireland’s new abortion law, which modified Ireland’s total ban on the procedure to allow for legal abortion in cases when it is necessary to save a woman’s life.

And that’s exactly what happened Thursday night. The National Maternity Hospital in Dublin performed an abortion for a dying woman. The woman’s membrane had ruptured for more than 24 hours, and she ran a high risk of sepsis.

Of course, Kenny's positions are in line with those of American Catholics, the majority of whom disagree with church doctrine on abortion and same-sex marriage. In fact, 60 percent of U.S. Catholics support same-sex marriage, more than the national average of 56 percent. Pope Francis recently announced an initiative that will poll Catholics about their views on these issues, which may indicate a brewing shift in church policy.