Will of the people must be respected
After a fraught campaign, the country will vote this week on whether or not to delete the present Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution - the Eighth Amendment - which acknowledges the right to life of the unborn with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, to be replaced with a new article which will allow for provision to be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy, or induced abortion.
At this stage, it is difficult to know with certainty what will be the result, although opinion polls tend to indicate that voters will decide by a slim majority to repeal the present article. However, opinion polls have been wrong in the past at this stage in previous referendum campaigns and the definite possibility exists that voters will decide not to delete the present article. The result is expected to be close.
If a majority votes No, then laws may be passed to provide for abortion only where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the risk of suicide. If a majority votes Yes, this will allow the Oireachtas to pass new laws regulating abortion and these laws need not limit the availability to circumstances where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.
Among other provisions, a new law is proposed which will allow for unrestricted access to abortion up to the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy. It is this provision which has proven to be most divisive in the campaign, dividing not only the Yes and No campaigns, policy makers and public organisations and representative groups, but also households and families.
However, when the votes are eventually counted it will be incumbent on all sides to accept the result as the expressed will of the people. This may seem a statement of the obvious, but it is worth emphasising all the same. There have been indications from some quarters that the collective will of the people will be ignored depending on the result. To do so, however, would run contrary to the spirit of the social contract which has informed modern politics and societies since the Age of Enlightenment; this is, with good reason, that the people collectively are the authors of the law.
The Cabinet has approved the main points of proposed legislation on abortion that will be brought forward should the referendum be passed. Among other things, this legislation proposes to make abortion lawful where an appropriate medical practitioner has certified that pregnancy has not exceeded 12 weeks, and beyond the first 12 weeks, that terminations would be available in exceptional circumstances such as where there is a risk of serious harm to the health or life of the woman, in emergency situations, and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
This intention has been made well known to the people in advance of and throughout the referendum campaign. The people fully realise what they are being asked to decide upon. Should the collective will of the people be to reject repeal of the Eighth Amendment that decision must be accepted by all legislators irrespective of their personal views: equally, should the people's will be to support repeal, even by a slim majority, it will be incumbent on all legislators to pass laws in accordance with that expressed will irrespective of their personal views.