Tuesday 19 November 2019

Now that the gay marriage campaign is over, abortion will be the next social battleground

Savita Halappanavar’s husband Praveen sits with a photograph of his wife at a friend’s house in Galway.
Savita Halappanavar’s husband Praveen sits with a photograph of his wife at a friend’s house in Galway.
Savita Halappanavaar

Shane Coleman

The campaign for same- sex marriage is done and dusted - emphatically so. But the obvious electoral shift towards a more liberal, secular society, particularly among younger voters, only serves to emphasise the point that abortion will be the next big social issue battleground.

We've already had five plebiscites on abortion in the past 32 years. But it's only a matter of when, not if, the next referendum happens.

Ireland has changed beyond recognition since the Eighth Amendment, proposing a constitutional ban on abortion, was resoundingly endorsed by the electorate in 1983.

Young voters went out in their droves to back same-sex marriage last Friday. They saw it as a 'no brainer' issue of simple equality. Many - though certainly not all - of them are equally emphatic about being 'pro-choice' on abortion.

And it's not just younger voters whose attitudes are shifting. Successive opinion polls have shown a large majority of voters backing abortion in certain restricted circumstances, such as in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest.

As reported in this newspaper yesterday, Labour is pushing for a change in the law to allow for terminations for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. But the Fine Gael line, backed, apparently, by the advice of the Attorney General, is that the Eighth Amendment is so restrictive any such law change - however much public support there may be for it - will be deemed unconstitutional.

And that is why another abortion referendum is inevitable. The only way of allowing for even limited abortion in circumstances that, polls suggest, are favoured by a majority of voters, is to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

The big two parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have little appetite to revisit the 1983 referendum. Large sections of their members and support wouldn't wear it.

However, Fine Gael had the same line on legislating for the X case during the last general election before being forced by a deeply tragic event - the death of Savita Halappanavar - to revise its thinking on the issue.

Fianna Fáil only avoided a catastrophic split over that issue by deciding on a free vote for its TDs.

The desperately sad Savita Halappanavar case, like the distressing X case before it, serves as a warning to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that ignoring the abortion issue and hoping it will go away doesn't work.

It's very possible, perhaps even probable, that the issue will come to a head within the next 10 months. Both the Labour party and Sinn Féin are publicly committed to repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Joan Burton has indicated that, if Labour makes it back to government, she envisages that being part of any programme for government. With Labour potentially struggling for relevancy, this will likely be a central plank of the party's election manifesto.

That would create a real headache for Fine Gael. If, during the course of the campaign, it rules out repealing the amendment then it raises serious question marks about its compatibility with Labour. If it doesn't, the party risks alienating its more conservative voters, not to mention some rural independent TDs it might be counting on for support if the Coalition falls short of a majority.

Essentially, unless Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil form the next government - and both parties have emphatically ruled that out - it's impossible not to see the abortion issue returning centre stage in any programme for government negotiations.

And it is conceivable a sixth abortion referendum might be the most bitter yet. The 1983 vote was poisonous at times but the next referendum will be specifically about legislating for abortion - as opposed to constitutionally banning it 32 years ago. Despite the increasingly liberal views of many voters, that scenario would be fiercely opposed by large sections of the electorate.

The nature of any legislation would, of course, be critical. In so far as one can make assumptions about the electorate, it's probable that legislating for terminations for unviable pregnancies would be largely uncontentious. The same may hold in cases of rape or incest.

But what if a government proposed legislating for abortion in cases where the health - as opposed to the life - of the mother was at risk? Rightly or wrongly, that would be seen by many as a gateway to abortion on demand.

Such legislation would have been unthinkable even as recently as 2002, when the last abortion referendum was defeated. The key factor in that defeat was the opposition of some conservative voters, who felt it did not go far enough. But is it so unthinkable today?

It would be premature to say 'pro-choice' is now the majority view in Ireland - the best guess is that most voters are somewhere on the spectrum between the old categorisations of 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' - but it is certainly growing.

The resounding victory of the Yes side in the same-sex marriage referendum was interpreted by some as evidence there was no longer a liberal or a conservative Ireland - that the cleavage had been repaired. That might prove premature. The biggest battle between those two forces may yet to be fought.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the 'Sunday Show' on Newstalk.com

Irish Independent

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