Tuesday 11 December 2018

It's going to be close - but there is no gender war on abortion

The numbers in support of allowing abortion in a range of circumstances are tightening, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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Eilis O'Hanlon

Polls are not merely a snapshot of where the country stands in advance of the referendum on removing the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution.

Inevitably, they become part of the campaign itself, shaping where the argument goes next. Not everyone sees billboard ads, or reads newspapers, or diligently watches late-night debates on TV; but almost everyone will catch the headline figures in a poll, making the arrival of each new one a significant milestone in the campaign.

That may prove particularly true in the case of the latest Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown poll.

Much of what was revealed by the polling, conducted in early February, conforms to expectations. More than six in 10 people (63pc) favour holding a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment. Only 24pc of people oppose the Taoiseach's decision.

That part of his judgment has, at least, been vindicated.

A majority, likewise, is in favour of allowing abortion for cases of rape (65pc); where there is a threat of a mother's suicide (55pc); where there is a medical risk to the mother's life apart from suicide (63pc); where there is a threat to the long-term health of the mother (58pc); or where there is a case of fatal foetal abnormality (54pc).

Rape and medical risk aside, they are not large enough majorities to allow those behind the campaign to repeal the Eighth to sleep easy in their beds, and even those figures could be whittled away, but a majority is a majority. On the day, they'd happily settle for a victory as narrow as the Brexit referendum in the UK, just so long as the final decision falls their way.

Beyond that is where it gets interesting. When it comes to allowing abortion for any other reason, only 28pc are in favour, with 44pc believing that this would be unacceptable. This would seem to point to Irish opinion being, narrowly, for abortion under strict conditions, but against it being available on demand for other reasons.

That does pose a problem for the Government. If Leo Varadkar has miscalculated how liberal Irish opinion has become in recent years, particularly when it comes to backing the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee that abortion should be freely available up until the 12th week of pregnancy - for any reason whatsoever - then the way in which that issue has become entangled with repeal could still unseat the campaign.

The figures when it comes to that 12-week proposal, which the Taoiseach says he supports, will send a shiver of apprehension down the necks of those hoping for a Yes vote early in the summer.

When questioned, 40pc of people said 12 weeks was "about right", and 8pc said it didn't go far enough; but a third (33pc) said that it went too far. This takes the referendum into tricky territory, because there is already no majority for 12 weeks, and history suggests it is better for those in favour of change to head into a campaign with a large lead, rather than needing to pick up support, because the numbers inevitably tighten as voting nears.

What this latest snapshot of opinion also confirms is that all parties contain within them a wide range of attitudes towards abortion. Labour supporters are the most solidly pro-choice, as would be expected, but the other parties are broader churches. Micheal Martin's more liberal stance is shared by a significant chunk of the Fianna Fail supporters in this poll. Abortion is not a partisan issue.

The numbers in this latest poll do suggest, though, that pro-life opinion in Ireland is in much ruder health than some earlier polls have indicated, some of which found majorities of up to 75pc in favour of allowing abortion in cases of rape, suicide risk, and fatal foetal abnormality.

If right, it demands an urgent rethink from those campaigning for the repeal of the Eighth. They must tackle that 12-week limit head on, because doubts about it are their Achilles' heel, and may even be affecting support for abortion under conditions previously favoured by respondents. The majorities in favour of abortion in the case of rape, maternal risk, and even fatal foetal abnormality, are all down notably on other surveys, including previous Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown polls.

If that trend continues over the coming months, the referendum could easily be lost, and all because of fears about opening a door to unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has been criticised by some in his own party for expressing doubts on this very issue, but he may be reflecting/detecting a more widely held disquiet.

This is where the support of the still undecideds, which is where the referendum will be won or lost, may be forfeited. These figures are emphatic about them being key.

One small point to end. The more fervent pro-choice advocates still appear to believe there is some mileage in presenting abortion as an ideological battle of the sexes, in which men seek to deprive women of their rights.

Any temptation to weaponise gender is invariably foolish and reductive, but, in the case of abortion, this poll exposes it as a particularly facile line of attack.

There is barely a cigarette paper's width of a difference between men and women when it comes to support for abortion in each of the specified categories; and when it comes to opposition to abortion, in each case it is Irish women who are more likely to adopt pro-life positions. More women than men (27pc to 21pc) are against having this referendum at all.

More women than men (26pc to 21pc) are against allowing abortion where there is a threat of suicide; or where there is a threat to the long-term health of the mother (22pc of women, compared to 15pc of men); and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (25pc as against 20pc).

More women than men (albeit a much narrower 18pc to 16pc) are even opposed to abortion in cases of rape, while 36pc of women believe the recommendation of the Oireachtas committee to freely allow abortions up to 12 weeks went "too far", compared to 29pc of men.

There may be arguments about how statistically significant these figures are when broken down according to sex, but the referendum could be decided on very narrow margins, so why keep pretending for ideological satisfaction that the main obstacle to liberalising Irish abortion law is the opposition of men? Indeed, if voting in the referendum was restricted to women, the result could be even closer.

If one thing should be taken from this poll, let it be that. There is no gender war when it comes to abortion - men and women alike are all just wrestling with the issues in their own imperfect ways. The pro-choice cause would be better served by building alliances, rather than looking to seek and destroy imaginary enemies. Win round the muddled middle by respecting the complexity of their responses.

Polls rise and fall, but that advice will never go out of date.

Sunday Independent

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