Irish Abortion Referendum Confirmed
The Irish government this week formally committed to holding a referendum on abortion, ending months of speculation and briefings.
It will be held before the end of May to ensure the highest possible turnout by not clashing with university exams and holidaymakers’ plans.
The choice to be put to voters will be whether or not to repeal the eighth amendment to Ireland’s 1937 Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann), Article 40.3.3, which dates back to 1983 and one of the most bitter and divisive campaigns in Irish civic history.
The campaign for the amendment, cynically exploited by partisan politicians and pressure groups at the time, led to Irish law attaching equal value to the mother and her unborn child – and produced perverse consequences even through to the present day.
The announcement, by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, at a press conference after a special cabinet meeting that ran late into the night, confirmed what had already been widely speculated during a carefully choreographed strategy of managing expectations.
He said Irish voters will be given a choice to make abortion “safe, legal and rare” or for “the law (to) remain as it is now.”
Mr Varadkar, and Ireland’s Health Minister Simon Harris, confirmed that legislation is being prepared to allow unrestricted access to abortion up to the twelfth week of pregnancy and later in cases of rape, incest or fatal abnormality – that legislation to be put to the Oireachtas only if voters approve repealing Article 40.3.3 in the Referendum.
If Irish voters approve they will be voting to allow the Dail to determine what laws govern abortion.
Mr Varadkar pledged to tell voters just what that legislation would be.
Mr Varadkar, a trained medical doctor and former Health Minister, said he had changed his own long-held opposition to abortion because of the many tragic and horrific stories that had occurred in Ireland that he had heard as he read more and more into the brief.
“As minister for health I became convinced that abortion had no place in the constitution,” said Mr Varadkar.
He recounted the case, during that time, of “Miss Y” a migrant woman turned away from an English port when she went to the UK for an abortion.
“She went on hunger strike and became suicidal” said the Taoiseach.
Mr Varadkar said that over 2,000 Irish women and girls were taking abortion pills each year without proper medical supervision, and that this would inevitably lead to medical tragedies.
“I don’t think we can persist with a situation where women in crisis are risking their lives for the use of unregulated medicines and I don’t believe the Constitution is the place for making absolute statements about medical, moral and legal issues.”
He said the Cabinet had been unanimous on the question of holding a referendum to repeal the eighth and end the perverse anomalies of the status quo.
Mr Varadkar said he trusts the Irish people to make their decision “based on compassion”.
Ireland’s Constitution was not the place to deal with an issue that is “not black and white”.
“Abortion is not a black and white issue; it is a grey area…we can’t continue to criminalise our sisters and friends.
“Ireland already has abortion,” he said “but it is unsafe.”
“Women from every county are risking their lives (by obtaining abortion tablets) through the post,” he said.
Most Irish abortions take place in the UK, he said “(but) we are no longer willing to export our problems.”
Doctors should be free to “refer to clinical guidelines and not Bunreacht na hÉireann” when making vital decisions about patients’ health.
“Nobody under 52 has had a say on this matter…I was four in 1983, (Health Minister) Simon Harris wasn’t even born,” he said.
Nevertheless there are significant differences – in some cases deep unease – among not just members of his Cabinet and his party across the country but amongst individuals in all parties.
Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney, Mr Varadkar’s former rival for the leadership of Fine Gael, has already expressed misgivings about the proposed twelve-week limit. Many of his Cabinet colleagues, party members, and fellow TDs in other parties have expressed similar misgivings.
With that in mind none of the parties – including Fianna Fail, whose leader Micheal Martin supports repealing the eighth – are likely subjected to a party whip on the legislation.
Mr Varadkar’s Fine Gael-led coalition government does not have an overall Dail majority, it depends on five Independent TDs and a supply and confidence agreement struck with Fianna Fail.
A recent opinion poll suggested there is 60 per cent support among Irish voters for repealing the eighth but only 51 per cent support for unrestricted abortion up to twelve weeks.
The 1983 referendum – brought about at the behest of groups supported by the Catholic Church and exploited by the then opposition Fianna Fail led by Charlie Haughey and conservative factions of Fine Gael, then led by Garret FitzGerald in a government coalition with the Labour Party – passed with 67 per cent of the vote despite scientific and medical warnings of the likely consequences, most, or all, of which came to pass.
In all, Irish voters have been asked to clarify the country’s stance on abortion four times since he original 1983 referendum – in Nov 1992, twice in Dec 1992 and in March 2002.
In 1992 the Irish Attorney General secured a court order to stop a 14-year old rape victim being allowed to leave Ireland for a termination. It was known as the X case and received worldwide coverage.
It was overturned by Ireland’s Supreme Court which determined that – as there was considered to be a risk the teenager would end her life rather than have the baby – that terminations might be carried out where there was risk to the mother.
Ireland’s anti-abortion groups, deeply opposed to this interpretation, successfully lobbied for yet two more referenda on abortion. Although they were defeated on both occasions Irish hospitals and medical staffs remained intensely conservative even in in life-threatening situations, fearing draconian prosecutions and prison sentences if deemed to have procured or conducted abortions.
The most egregious example of this was in 2012 when 31-year old Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis at University Hospital a week after being admitted, 17 weeks pregnant because staff did not believe they could legally carry out the necessary life-saving termination of the unviable foetus.