Abortion in the Irish Republic: Past, Present and Future


By the standards of much of the Western world, abortion laws in the Republic of Ireland are notoriously harsh, with a constitutional ban effective since the passing of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution in 1987. In the years preceding this, fears of a judicial ruling similar to Roe v. Wade in the United States spurred on a fierce ‘pro-life’ campaign, with campaigners lobbying politicians for a referendum to decree that the illegality of abortion be permanently embedded in the constitution. The referendum was hugely divisive, described by some as ‘the second partitioning of Ireland’, but ultimately passed with 67% of the vote.

It was only in 2013, following the high-profile case of Savita Halappanavar – who died at a Galway hospital of a septic miscarriage, having been refused an abortion – that exceptions to this rule were officially tolerated, with the Protection of Human Life During Pregnancy Act permitting abortion in cases where a pregnant woman’s life was judged to be at risk.

However, it is seeming increasingly likely that another referendum will take place within the next twelve months or so. The Citizens’ Assembly, a randomly selected group of 99 Irish citizens formed to advise the government on various political issues, have recently provided a strong mandate for this, with 87% voting in favour of changing the amendment in some way and 64% believing that there should be ‘no restrictions as to reasons’ for legal abortion. Following the recent resignation of prime minister Enda Kenny, prime ministerial candidates Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar have both expressed desires for a referendum to take place in 2018 – meaning that, if they are to be taken at their word, this should be almost an inevitability. The extent of these men’s personal support for legislative reform is, however, limited, with Coveney stating that he is ‘uncomfortable’ with certain Assembly proposals and Varadkar previously objecting to what he termed ‘abortion on request’.

While the occurrence of a public referendum should hopefully limit the impact of individual politicians’ views, there is also reason to believe the Assembly findings may be somewhat misleading when it comes to public opinion more broadly. A nationwide poll, conducted earlier this year by the Irish Times, indicated that public support for abortion was ‘cautious and conditional’; while a large majority (76-77%) did support abortion access in cases of incest, rape, and fatal foetal abnormality, only 28% believed this should be allowed in cases in which ‘a woman believes she would be unable to cope because of her age or circumstances’. Furthermore, only 44% believed abortion should be legal when the pregnant individual is threatening suicide, despite this being one of the few circumstances in which it currently is. Thus it appears that the ‘liberalisation’ endorsed by most Irish citizens is still, by the standards of most Western countries, incredibly restrictive.

This raises the question of precisely what form a potential referendum should take; on what, beyond the ambiguous catchall of ‘change’, are the people expected to vote? The two general options would be to either vote on repealing the amendment altogether, with the implication being that abortion would then be legally allowed and the legislature then passing a law to specify the details of access, or to vote on simply amending the current text to allow abortion in a narrowly defined set of circumstances. Poll results suggest that a referendum on abortion solely in cases of incest, rape, and fatal foetal abnormality would almost certainly pass, but the impact of this would obviously be limited, as the majority of those seeking abortion do so on personal or less extreme health grounds. If more influential change was to be proposed, however, the result would likely be a lot more close.

While religious affiliation certainly does not rule out the possibility of tolerance (any more than atheism guarantees it), the popular condemnation of abortion in Ireland is indisputably related to the historically powerful influence of Catholicism here. In the 1980s, the Catholic Church placed itself at the forefront of the ‘pro-life’ campaign, influenced in part by the strongly expressed views and widespread popularity of Pope John Paul II himself. Census figures do suggest that the influence of religion has declined over recent years, with a recent article in Catholic news website Crux lamenting that public confidence in the Church is ‘at its lowest level in the history of Ireland’ and even going so far as to argue that the voice of a Catholic bishop would now more likely lose than gain support for the anti-abortion cause amongst the general public. Nonetheless, the 2016 census still painted a picture of a strongly Roman Catholic country, with 78.3% of the population identifying in this way.

Even if people no longer identify as strongly with religion as they once did, the perception of abortion in what has been described as ‘almost punitive terms’ – the sense that a woman’s unwanted pregnancy outside of cases of rape and incest is ultimately her ‘fault’, and thus that she must pay the price – persists. It is because of this understanding of abortion that the legalisation of same-sex marriage through referendum in 2015, which painted a picture of an openminded and progressive populace, cannot necessarily be taken to guarantee a similar victory for pro-choice advocates. While not everybody can agree on the conditions in which marriage should occur, it is nonetheless widely accepted as a bedrock of ‘good living’, across many different religions and worldviews.

Same-sex marriage therefore posed significantly less of a threat to popular, Catholic morality than does the widespread availability of abortion. Rather than merely expanding the criteria for an already accepted good, for Ireland to embrace substantial change here would necessitate a complete reevaluation of what abortion means, for individual morality and for the moral fibre of the country as a whole – and, because of this, the results of any referendum granting options beyond a small expansion of exceptions would currently be impossible to call.

[Chloe Spence]

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