Wednesday 26 October 2016

Alex White: The Eighth Amendment will never be repealed - unless Labour is in power

Alex White

Published 07/12/2015 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

I campaigned against the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution in 1983, and I look forward to the day it is repealed. It prevents Ireland from having a humane framework to deal with tragic cases, such as the pregnant women whose babies have been diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality.

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It has created a constitutional morass that doesn't even deliver what its advocates said they wanted. Worse, the amendment endangers the health and well-being of Irish women.

But we shouldn't make the assumption that achieving a repeal of the Eighth will be easy.

The vast majority of the Irish people sit in the middle ground on this issue. They are uneasy about abortion, but they are no longer prepared to tolerate a regime that puts their sisters, mothers and friends at risk.

Calling for a referendum is not enough. It would have to be won and, for that to happen, we need to explain the merits of the case in a respectful but forthright way.

And we will need to debate a new legislative framework that would replace both the amendment and the existing draconian legislation on termination.

The progress of the X Case legislation is instructive in this regard. For 20 years the Oireachtas avoided legislating for that Supreme Court decision. And even after the European Court of Human Rights issued its damning judgment, it took the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar - and Eamon Gilmore's determination to secure the support of Fine Gael - to achieve legal certainty for the protection of women's lives.

Achieving the repeal of the Eighth Amendment will require the same determination, and a level of political sophistication that has been wholly absent from opposition posturing on this complex legal, medical and moral issue.

We will have to convince a majority of members of Dáil Éireann to support a referendum, and convince a majority of the Irish people to vote for repeal.

We will also have to put a medical and legal framework in place to address the legitimate concerns that many citizens have.

In the Labour Party we understand that delivering on this issue means putting in the hard work to bring people and politicians along with us - just as we did on marriage equality and the X Case.

One of the most under-appreciated successes of Labour in Government has been our ability to influence a larger Coalition partner on these issues. In contrast, it is impossible to imagine those opposition TDs who are periodically vocal on the social agenda supporting a Government long enough to actually deliver repeal of the Eighth.

Brave voices are now emerging from within Fine Gael to support the change we need. Being in Government with Labour gives them an influence they would surely lack with any other potential Coalition partner.

It is a plain fact that there will be no repeal of the Eighth Amendment unless Labour is in Government after the next election.

Other potential Fine Gael partners (if they actually exist) have shown no commitment to dealing with this issue. Can you imagine the issue progressing through a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil Government, for instance? Notwithstanding the progressive position of some Fine Gael deputies and ministers, it simply wouldn't happen.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny (pictured below) is right to say that Irish society needs to have a debate about the Eighth because, while most people believe the status quo is unsustainable, there is no settled view on what should replace it.

To this end the Labour Women group has published a Bill that sets out a basis for legal termination on four grounds: cases of incest, rape and fatal foetal abnormality, or a threat to the life and health of the mother. This is a position that can gain wide support, and all political parties should either sign up to it or clearly set out their own position.

Some argue that we require a new constitutional provision to replace the Eighth. But the Constitution is no place for an issue as complex as this. The amendment was introduced as a block on parliament's democratic role to legislate. In that sense it has been successful - apart from the X Case.

But the people elect a parliament to make these decisions, and legislation is the appropriate place to reflect the considered outcome of a national conversation on abortion.

That said, debate and consultation cannot be an endless excuse for inaction when our mothers, sisters and friends remain at risk. We've been discussing this issue for more than 30 years and it must be addressed by the next Dáil.

That will only happen if the next Government includes a political party that is wholly committed to repeal, and that knows what it takes to deliver change.

In a Government that will undoubtedly be led by a Fine Gael Taoiseach, Labour is the only party that will deliver repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

÷ Labour TD Alex White is Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

Irish Independent

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