More about the X case. (from Wikipedia)
1. There is a quote in an article from The New York Times : There is deep-seated opposition to abortion in Ireland, said Niamh Ui Bhriain of the Life Institute. If pro-abortion campaigners believe that Irish people are behind a move to legalize abortion, bring on the referendum. Do you agree there is a deep-seated opposition to abortion in Ireland or not, and why?
2. I know we can probably only speculate but what would be in your opinion the outcome of the referendum on the legalization of abortion?
Niamh Reilly, Senior Lecturer and Co-director of the Global Women’s Studies Progamme at the School of Political Science and Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway
Irish attitudes to abortion in various circumstances were measured in research commissioned by Marie Stopes Reproductive Choices released March 8, 2010 – for more details see: http://www.hrw.org/news/2010/03/05/ireland-update-abortion-laws
The research indicated growing support for legalised abortion in Ireland and an understanding of the different situations faced by women in unplanned pregnancies.
- More than three quarters of respondents (79%) agreed that termination of pregnancy should be permitted if the woman’s health is at risk;
- Nearly eight out of 10 respondents (78%) agreed that termination of pregnancy should be permitted if the pregnancy is the result of sexual abuse / rape or incest;
- Just under two thirds of respondents (62%) agreed that termination of pregnancy should be permitted if there is evidence of a profound foetal abnormality;
- Over four out of 10 respondents (41%) agreed that termination of pregnancy should be permitted if the woman believes it is in her and / or her family’s best interest;
- Three per cent of respondents felt that abortion in Ireland is not acceptable under any circumstances.
The results are broadly in line with Irish Examiner commissioned research by RED C in 2010 which showed that 3 out of 5 18-35 year olds believed that abortion in Ireland should be legalised. See: http://www.irishexaminer.com/home/rights-body-calls-for-legalised-abortion-110767.html
So, to answer your questions:
1. The attitudes of Irish people to abortion are more nuanced and increasingly more liberal than generally supposed to be the case. Most people I believe would support access to safe and legal abortion in Ireland under specified conditions. However, a majority, I believe, would not support Ireland adopting the same approach to abortion as pertains in Great Britain, which is widely understood to be one of ‘abortion on demand.’ There is a small, very vocal and well organised minority that oppose abortion under all conditions, who it would appear are disproportionately represented in the limited media coverage of abortion that we see in Ireland and disseminated internationally.
2. It is very unlikley that there will be a referendum on abortion – although this appears to be the preferred route of the anti-abortion groups. The difficulty with referenda is that they tend to polarise the debate between two very artificial positions of ‘abortion on demand’ (i.e. up to 9 months of pregnancy) and ‘fundamental opposition to abortion’ as a non-negoatiable (abstract) value, presumably rooted in the Catholic values of the majority (although the religious roots are rarely explicity acknowledged). So, if there was to be a referendum, whether or not it would be approved would depend very much on the wording and whether or not it could be interpreted as opening the door to ‘unlimited abortion access’, which would be defeated. If a referendum were to pose questions similar to those asked in the Marie Stopes research, however, the outcome could go in the direction of liberalisation of current laws – but it is extremely unlikely that such a scenario would come to pass anytime soon.
Right now, the issue is whether or not the Government will introduce legislation to clarify the conditions under which access to safe and legal abortion is permitted in Ireland as decided by the Irish Supreme Court X Case judgement of 1992 (which deemed that abortion is permitted by the Constitution in Ireland to save the life of the pregnant woman/girl, including in situations of a risk of suicide). Unless forced to (e.g. by another Supreme Court challenge to whatever legislation it adopts on abortion), the Irish Government is extremely unlikely to opt for a divisive referendum on the issue.
Peter Morriss, Lecturer, Department of Political Science and Sociology, NUI Galway
First, Niamh Ui Bhriain is an anti-abortion campaigner. What she says is of interest as an example of political rhetoric or propaganda, but of no worth as impartial commentary.
I think that it is unlikely that there will be a referendum in the near future. In my view, the European Court’s decision could be adequately dealt with by legislation, should any change be required, and I don’t think there is any great wish for an attempt to amend the constitution by referendum. It might help to look back at the last referendum, in 2002. Then, the (then) governing parties, and others, put a great deal of work into creating a wording that they thought would be acceptable to a majority; it was supported by all the political parties; yet it was defeated. To have a referendum in Ireland requires prior approval by the Parliament, so it needs the agreement of the leading parties. There is little domestic interest in having another referendum, and the governing parties have their hands full (over-full) with other matters. Hence they will prevaricate as long as they can before holding a referendum – and Irish politicians are very good at prevaricating. Thus the NYT article is really built on a false premise.
But, to answer your question about what would happen if there was a referendum, then I think it would depend crucially on the background to bringing the referendum. If it were brought at the insistence of EU institutions, then I would expect it to be defeated – whatever it was – as a gesture of opposition to interference in Ireland by Europe. The way that there is likely to be a relaxation of the law is if there is some domestic scandal, such as a woman is refused a (medical) abortion and then dies – and the referendum is held as a consequence. That is (roughly) what happened in the referendums after the X case in 1992 (though the woman did not die, of course).
As to the views of people in Ireland, I think there is a clear majority for some (limited) abortion, and a clear majority against abortion-on-demand. But anti-abortion campaigners claim that allowing limited abortion will eventually lead to abortion-on-demand – and I think they may be right about that. Hence getting agreement on limited abortion is very difficult.
There is another aspect that you might consider: a lot of this debate, on both sides, is mere moral posturing. In practice, large numbers of Irish women go to England for abortions; one of the constitutional amendements in 1992 allowed this. Hence almost all Irish women who want abortions can get them – though in less than ideal circumstances. In a sense, the law in England is far more important than the law in Ireland – and also the existence of cheap travel to England is more important than the law here. As far as I am aware, there is now little pressure to make travelling to England for an abortion illegal here. Hence the Irish can feel pleased with themselves that they have the most ‘moral’ constitution in Europe, without that actually stopping them being ‘immoral’ if they want. Which is an ideal outcome. In short, the Constitution is mainly a statement about the image of Ireland that the Irish want to have; not a determination of what people can and cannot do.
As to why there is this opposition to abortion, it must stem originally from Catholicism. I think that that is still a huge part of it, but there are now other factors which all combine in a confusing way. It is appealing to be ‘pro-life’ (what can be wrong with life?) and in favour of protecting the vulnerable (which foetuses are). Traditionally, the Irish have probably been even more caring about babies than other cultures – or, at least, liked to think that that’s what they were; hence the huge families in the recent past. That might be part of the reason why the rights of ‘the unborn’ seem more salient than the rights of unhappily-pregnant women. Opposition to killing the unborn may also be one of the few aspects of Catholicism that people can still feel proud about. There are also nationalist appeals: the fact that abortion is widespread in Europe and (particularly) England makes opposition to it part of the Irish identity. But this is perhaps getting too speculative.
Maura Adshead, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration and Head of the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick
1. Until the economic boom of the mid 1990s, inwards migration of any groups other than ‘returning Irish’ was unusual. This, added to the fact that partition – between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – left the Republic with an unusually homogenous religious and social profile. It is no coincidence then, that Ireland is historically and contemporarily, a largely Catholic country. The re-drafting of the Constitution in 1937 certainly had a strong Catholic flavour, with references to the family as the central unit of society, a list of ‘directive social principles’, plus a ban on divorce. Nonetheless, after a long occupation by an anti-Catholic colonizer and a bitter civil war at its conclusion, many of the Catholic elements of the re-drafted constitution might as easily be seen as an attempt by De Valera to restate a shared cultural and social identity in an act of nation building – rather than a deliberate attempt to assert one religious view over another.
It was not until 1981, that the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) sprung up completely unannounced and, within two years, joined other like minded groups, under the umbrella of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), to successfully persuade the government of the day to call a referendum with the purpose of introducing an amendment which would in effect guarantee the rights of the unborn child and constitutionally outlaw abortion. This was a pre-emptive move, following developments in the United States with the famous Roe vs Wade case, to ensure that abortion rights would not become legal in Ireland.
The text of the constitutional amendment proposed, and subsequently passed, gives some indication of the Irish attitude to abortion. Instead of simply declaring a ban on abortion, the amendment instead emphasized an equal commitment to the lives of mothers and their unborn children. This attitude to abortion was further refined in subsequent constitutional referenda. As it now stands, the Irish Constitution in Article 40.3 declares that:
1° The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
2° This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.
3° This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.
For Irish people, this reflects a set of socio-cultural values that are historically informed by Catholicism, but contemporarily attenuated by a large degree of pragmatism.
The first clause has enabled the Supreme Court, in limited number of cases, to declare abortion legal in Ireland, in its judgements over the balance of the rights of mother and unborn child. The second clause is a tacit acknowledgement that many Irish women do, and should be legally entitled, to travel to other jurisdictions for the purposes of attaining an abortion. The third clause means that abortion information and advertisements are widely and freely available in the Republic.
This is, to coin a phrase, very much ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’. It recognizes that Irish people have reservations about abortion and that many continue to find difficulty with accepting it as a secular issue about women’s rights. Yet it also recognizes that for many Irish women, abortion is a necessary and reasonable action that should not be prevented by the state. Certainly, it is an attitude that falls far short of ‘deep-seated and principled opposition’.
2. Abortion is already legal in some cases and information about abortion services outside the state is widely and legally available. Pregnancy counseling services offer non-directive advice on all options available to women who find themselves in crisis pregnancy. This falls short of a comprehensive abortion service within the state – and probably reflects the commonly held Irish attitude that abortion is sometimes necessary but seldom desirable. One way or another, Irish people have been confronted with three referenda where the substantive issue concerned abortion. There is very little appetite for further constitutional referenda on abortion – save from a dwindling number of anti-abortion interest groups, who are now regarded as being outside the mainstream view.
Lisa Smyth, Lecturer in Sociology, Queen’s University Belfast
1. No, I do not think there is a deep-seated opposition to abortion across the population of Ireland. This is because events over the past two decades have illustrated in very public ways the dreadful costs borne by girls and women, as well as their families, from the non-availability of legal abortion in the state. Cases where the constitutional recognition of a right to life for the ‘unborn’ have been tested in the courts, including by the state itself as it has sought to assist girls under its direct care, have underlined the complex range of circumstances within which abortion might be sought. Public debate and political activity on this issue now reveals both a commitment to treating women and girls experiencing pregnancy traumas of various sorts with compassion rather than moral condemnation, and an acceptance that access to abortion is often necessary as a health matter.
2. There are no concrete proposals or plans to run another public referendum on abortion access. Instead, the state is obliged to comply with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of A, B and C versus Ireland, to introduce guidelines indicating the precise circumstances under which abortion is available under the current constitutional provisions, as it has been interpreted by case law. A Bill seeking to address this requirement has just been introduced to the Dáil.