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Middle Ireland has spoken: now the Government should act on abortion


Taoiseach Enda Kenny has denied any role in the appointment. Photo: Frank McGrath

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has denied any role in the appointment. Photo: Frank McGrath

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has denied any role in the appointment. Photo: Frank McGrath

Some things are easier than they look. Riding a bike is often cited as an example. It looks tricky, but it isn't really.

Figuring out what to do about abortion could arguably be added to the list. The issue has torn through Irish politics for decades, and it's a problem to which most governments have responded by trying their best to ignore it. Enda Kenny thought he'd laid the dragon to rest once and for all when he passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

Instead, the awful story of the young migrant woman known as Miss Y, who was denied an abortion after rape and who was eventually forced to undergo a late caesarian to save the life of her unborn child, brought the issue right back into the spotlight.

The Taoiseach remains adamant that there will be no revisiting of the issue in this Dail, but there isn't much support for that stance in the latest Sunday Independent/ Millward Brown opinion poll, which finds that only 31pc of people are happy to wait for action until after the next general election in 2016. Interestingly enough, that figure is exactly the same for men and women; but there's a significant difference when it comes to those who want him to act now. Only 34pc of men are opposed to waiting until after the election, but the equivalent figure for women is 46pc. Fine Gael risks alienating a sizeable number of women by delaying.

The figures, broken down and analysed, are a reminder, as always, of the complexity of attitudes towards abortion; but there is some noticeable degree of consensus when it comes to deciding what the Government should do when it finally does get around to acting on the issue.

A sizeable majority of 56pc of people are in favour of holding a referendum to repeal the controversial eighth amendment to the Constitution, which gives equal right to the life to the mother and that of the foetus, which is often criticised by doctors and legal experts as unworkable in practise even if it seems like the best solution in theory.

Less than one in five (19pc) are against the idea of holding another referendum. As for what legislation should be put in place, it couldn't be clearer.

Asked under which of the following circumstances, if any, abortion is acceptable in Ireland, 60pc say that it should be allowed where there is the threat of the mother's suicide; 69pc in the case when a woman has become pregnant as a result of rape; 72pc where there is a medical risk to the mother's life other than suicide; and 68pc where there is a threat to a woman's long- term health.

These are broad figures which could, as any debate on amending the law progresses, be whittled away by doubts about how to decide, for example, when a threat of suicide is real and whether allowing abortion on the grounds of a suicide threat might not open those infamous floodgates to effective abortion on demand.

Overall, though, there's a remarkable uniformity amongst Irish people in this poll as to the grounds on which an abortion is acceptable, and that goes for men as well as women. There's a slightly greater tendency amongst women than men, by around three or four percentage points in each case, to support abortion on the grounds of rape or the threat of suicide; but on the question of abortion in the case of a threat to the mother's life other than suicide, support stands at a very healthy 72pc across the gender divide.

How all this should be defined in law remains problematic, but it's clear that Irish voters want it defined in some way, because when the question switches to whether a woman should be allowed an abortion "for other reasons", support drops sharply to 34pc, with 38pc opposed, and 20pc saying "it depends". There is no way that can be passed on those figures.

This increased doubt applies to Labour voters as well, who in every question on abortion show themselves to be most strongly in favour of a pro-choice approach. On this particular question, Labourites are still more favourably-inclined than supporters of other parties, with 49pc backing a woman's right to an abortion in vaguer circumstances; but it's substantially down on the 84pc support amongst the same group, for example, for abortion in the event of rape.

None of this is going to be welcome news to groups which support the eighth amendment. Cora Sherlock of the Pro-Life Campaign issued a statement last week condemning the new guidelines on abortion issued by the Government, which, she said, "reinforce the obscenity of the new law where the life of a baby can be directly ended or delivered prematurely at a stage in pregnancy… all because the new law provides for such interventions without any medical evidence to back it up."

That Fine Gael has traditionally attracted the support of such pro-life opinion must cause some concern for the Taoiseach, but there's nothing in this latest poll to suggest that the views of those who identify themselves as FG voters are that different from the generality. In each of the hypothetical cases, support for abortion is two or three, in one case four, percentage points below the average, but there's not that great a divergence of opinion.

Indeed, if Middle Ireland has a consensus, it seems to lie somewhere between the positions of the two Government parties - slightly more laissez faire than FG; a good bit less so than Labour - meaning that they already have all the tools in place to come to an agreement on abortion which would be acceptable to the vast majority of Irish people.

It's probably too much to hope that this would put an end to an issue which has been both politically and socially divisive for years; but it may be the closest that they'll ever come to a middle way.

After which, they just have to get it passed in a bruising referendum battle. It won't be an easy journey, but the direction is clear.

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