Thursday 13 December 2018

Even if people vote for abortion, it could still be blocked by TDs

Pro-life and pro-choice supporters confront one another during the ‘Rally for Life’ march in Dublin last year. Photo: Fergal Philips
Pro-life and pro-choice supporters confront one another during the ‘Rally for Life’ march in Dublin last year. Photo: Fergal Philips
John Downing

John Downing

Much now turns on one key question: Do you agree there should be unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy?

The two earlier questions are: 1. Do you agree there must be a change in Ireland's abortion regime? 2. Do you think the Irish people should vote on such change?

These are relatively easy and would evoke a "Yes" from the vast majority of politicians at Leinster House. The first question has been answered by most of the nation's key medical experts. For them, the status quo is very unclear and militates against delivering the best available care to vulnerable expectant mothers.

The second is even easier. Politicians have been grappling with this issue for the past five years. The last time the Irish people were asked to vote on it was in March 2002, and the original contentious provision itself, the Eighth Amendment, dates back to September 1983.

So, there is no shortage of arguments for letting the people have their say. Barring a major upset, we are likely to have a referendum on the issue of abortion in May or June 2018.

That will fill a lot of space in the coming political year and appears to make a general election look less likely. But that is for another day.

The TDs and senators on the Oireachtas special committee worked long and hard on this distressing topic. There was surprise when they recommended that abortion should be available up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy. Whatever one's views on the matter, it was a strong and clear decision with absolutely no overtones of a fudge or political dodge.

The assessment for the TDs in particular now is whether this is too much for their constituents. Many of them will come to the issue with strong prior convictions, which can compound their dilemmas.

This very afternoon the Fine Gael TDs, senators and MEPs meet at Leinster House to consider it. One knowledgeable Fine Gael politician told this writer that it may be as close as 50:50 for and against the prospect of the 12-week limit.

The survey done by political staff colleagues for this newspaper, as reported today, also suggests great hesitancy among many politicians to back the 12-week limit. It's early days, but we may be looking at less than 50pc Dáil support for the prospect. Questions to TDs suggest it is very finely poised.

Beyond Leinster House, as our politicians try to gauge the public mood, anything could happen. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is entitled to be taken at face value for his comment last Wednesday, that the 12-week idea may or may not be "one step too far".

Most polling has suggested voters wanted to repeal the 1983 Eighth Amendment which guarantees equal right to the life of the mother and child.

But it was predicated on the likelihood of a restrictive abortion regime emerging thereafter. It was couched in terms of abortion being available to victims of rape and incest and cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Perhaps voters can be persuaded of the merits of the 12-week limit. But it remains to be seen whether the referendum will be presented in such terms, presumably with parallel legislation being outlined to complement a simple referendum proposition removing the 1983 wording from the Constitution.

Even if the referendum was presented upon the basis of a 12-week limit, and subsequently carried by voters, it would remain uncertain whether such legislation would ultimately be voted through by TDs and senators. With free votes in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, we have entered into completely uncharted political waters.

Up to now we have dealt badly with this issue. The debate often appeared to convulse the nation with some zealots on both sides doing themselves and voters no favours with excessive and ill-tempered debate interventions.

Despite, or maybe in part because of, the fiery debates in 1983, little more than half the voters bothered to turn out.

Turnout was much better in 1992, at almost 70pc, but it was undoubtedly helped by being held on the same day as a general election. Last time we voted in 2002 the turnout was an abysmal 40pc.

Most people agree we must have a more measured, informed and respectful debate this time. The suggestions by the Citizens' Assembly on the conduct of future referendums must be considered carefully.

Politicians are also right when they tell us we need more contributions by medical and other experts. We can readily understand politicians' reluctance to engage in debate.

That does not mean they can evade their responsibilities on this matter. We need honest political leadership here, with all politicians telling us what they think and why.

It is all a very unattractive prospect. But the time has come.

Irish Independent