Saturday 21 September 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Abortion: the issue that never goes away'

New disagreements suggest the referendum has made abortion more political than ever

'Abortion remains a live political issue'. Stock image
'Abortion remains a live political issue'. Stock image

Liam Weeks

After six referendums and 35 years of debate, there was a sentiment, or at least an expectation, that the abortion issue had finally been put to bed last May.

But, as the events surrounding Minister Simon Harris's plans to legislate for the referendum result have shown, abortion remains a live political issue.

There was a sense of naivety among the Repeal the Eighth campaigners that deleting abortion from the constitution would depoliticise the issue. If anything, it may have had the opposite effect.

One of the advantages of inserting a social policy into the Constitution is that it lessens the likelihood of such a policy becoming a political football. It gives parliamentarians a level of immunity, and protects them from the intensive lobbying of interest groups mobilised to influence policy change.

Rather than being pressurised to legislate, parliamentarians can fall back on the Constitution and the democratic mandate of the people for protection. The two act as a shield by which politicians can argue their hands are tied, deflecting unwanted influence.

This may well have been one of the intentions of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), which had originally lobbied the political parties to insert a constitutional ban on abortion in the 1980s.

Its success in getting the original Eighth Amendment passed in 1983 was one of the reasons why abortion was rarely, if ever, an election issue in Ireland.

Take November 1992 as an example, when three referendums on abortion were held on the same day as a Dail election. These referendums came about as a consequence of the Supreme Court judgment on the X case, which ruled that abortion was permissible where there was a threat to the life of the mother.

Some 25 pro-life candidates ran as Independents for the Dail at the concurrent election, all in opposition to one of the referendums to legalise abortion in limited circumstances. Even though a clear majority of voters shared their beliefs, few of them voted for these candidates, whose average vote was less than 1,000 first preferences.

Somewhat ironically, even though abortion is now a much less heated issue than in those turbulent days, the passing of the 36th Amendment last summer may only have made it a far more political issue than it ever was.

Anyone who doubts this conclusion should consider the events of the last couple of weeks alone, which have shown the political effect abortion continues to exert.

In the Dail a new political party is on the verge of formation on this issue, after Peadar Toibin left Sinn Fein following his expulsion for a second time over his opposition to abortion. Already in June, Senator Ronan Mullen founded the Human Dignity Alliance.

Among those who will have to carry out the abortions, a number of GPs have expressed their opposition to the provision of these services, with some wishing to preserve their right to conscientious objection.

The Catholic bishops have also weighed in with their tuppence-worth, reminding their flock that abortion is not a constitutional issue: "Every one of us has a right to life. It is not given to us by the Constitution of Ireland or by any law."

Although some of the faithful chose to disobey Catholic doctrine, for those who did not, the bishops expressed dismay that "the voices of those who voted against abortion in May's referendum have been ignored".

In a rather ambiguous statement, they also called for moral (do they mean organised?) opposition to the provision of abortion: "Women's lives, and the lives of their unborn children, are precious, valued and always deserving of protection. Any law which suggests otherwise would have no moral force. In good conscience it cannot be supported and would have to be resisted."

It is unclear what level of resistance the bishops are referring to - but perhaps this is why Minister Harris is proposing 'exclusion zones' around clinics offering abortions, to protect those providing, and those availing of, the service.

While it might have been expected that the Catholic Church and some medical practitioners would have continued to express their defiance of abortion, regardless of the referendum result, what particularly raised the ire of some commentators was the reaction of a group of TDs and senators to Minister Harris's proposals.

This came in the form of a considerable number of amendments, and of attempts to filibuster, or delay, the introduction of his legislation.

These parliamentarians, primarily Independents such as Mullen and Mattie McGrath, were criticised for ignoring the wishes of the people.

In The Irish Times, Miriam Lord wrote during last week: "It's as if the referendum never happened."

Such criticism is entirely misplaced, however, as it's because the referendum happened in the first place that these politicians now have the power to decide on abortion policy.

Some need reminding that the Irish electorate did not necessarily vote to legalise abortion. They voted to remove its constitutional prohibition, which is not the same thing.

They also voted to give parliament the power to introduce abortion, which again, strictly speaking, does not necessarily imply an endorsement of the availability of abortion.

Instead, it means that the electorate decided to hand over the right to make a decision on this policy to our legislators. So, the likes of Mattie McGrath, Ronan Mullen, and others, are perfectly entitled to amend, or oppose, any proposed abortion legislation, regardless of the result of the referendum.

We gave them this power.

While it means that for now the implication of this decision is that abortion will be legalised, it also means that at any stage parliament can render such legislation null and void.

So, there will be nothing to prevent a situation occurring like in Poland this year, where a conservative government sought to severely restrict the availability of abortion - even though it has been available since 1956.

There will be nothing to stop the global networks of anti-abortionists from exerting pressure on our parliamentarians, much like SPUC and others did in the 1980s.

TDs and senators could have their voting records on reproductive rights heavily scrutinised (and criticised), as occurs in the United States, where the stance a politician takes on abortion is seen as a key political decision that can make or break a campaign and career.

While it might seem that such a scenario is unlikely to evolve in Ireland, we need to remember that there is a significant section of society opposed to abortion.

While two-thirds voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, in an Irish Times poll carried out the week before the referendum, 47pc stated that abortion was wrong. A majority felt that abortion on request up to 12 weeks was too far. A considerable number of people voted 'Yes' - not necessarily because they were in favour of a liberal abortion regime, but because they felt the situation as it stood had to be changed.

What will happen should some anti-abortion organisations seek to mobilise these voters, or even the politicians opposed to abortion?

There remain a considerable number of these. We only have to look at Fianna Fail, where we know a significant cohort of its parliamentary party (not to mention its supporters) was opposed to repeal of the Eighth.

What would happen if the next leader of Fianna Fail is opposed to abortion? What if he or she gets this adopted as party policy and makes this a red line issue on entering government?

Minister Harris tweeted last Sunday that "the people have spoken and the campaign is over". He shouldn't hold his breath.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics at University College Cork

Sunday Independent

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