by Frank Schnittger
Fri Apr 20th, 2018 at 09:29:16 PM EST
The Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) was founded in 1981 to campaign for an amendment to the Constitution to ban abortion as there was concern in conservative circles associated with the Roman Catholic Church that the Supreme Court in Ireland might make a similar ruling to Roe vs. Wade in the USA. For a more detailed account of the history of abortion in Ireland see my article here.
In 1983 the people of Ireland approved the 8th. amendment to the Irish Constitution by a margin of 67% to 33%. It inserted the following text into the Irish Constitutuion:
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.
Abortion has never been legal in Ireland unless the women's life is in immediate danger, and women suspected of being pregnant have sometimes been refused urgent treatment for cancer or other medical conditions on the grounds that the treatment might harm the unborn child. Savita Halappanavar died following complications arising from a septic miscarriage after being refused an abortion "because her life was not in imminent danger" and because her inevitable miscarriage was not sufficient reason to carry one out.
An estimated 200,000 Irish women have travelled abroad for an abortion since 1968. It took a further amendment to the Irish Constitution, the 13th., in 1992, to guarantee the right of women to travel abroad for an abortion, as otherwise they risked being arrested en-route. It also took another amendment, the 14th., to allow freedom of access to information about abortion services abroad.
My late wife, Muriel Boothman, lost her job as manager of a local government funded community education centre because she refused to remove leaflets giving contact numbers for agencies which did not specifically rule out the possibility of abortion referral from the information centre.
The Irish Government has announced that it will hold a referendum on 25th. May to repeal the Eight Amendment and to legislate for abortion in limited circumstances afterwards, including "abortion on demand" for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Public opinion on the issue has changed dramatically in recent years.
In 2013, polling confirmed the Irish public were not in favour of abortion "when a woman deems it to be in her best interest".
In 2014, polling showed there was an appetite for a referendum to potentially allow for abortion in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality.
An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in October 2016 revealed a majority in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment.
Polls in 2017 highlighted public concern about some of the qualifying grounds for abortion put forward by the Citizens' Assembly in non-health related circumstances such as financial distress or simply on request.
Our January 2018 poll measured, for the first time, attitudes towards abortion in Ireland on request up to 12 weeks. Somewhat surprisingly, opinion was firmly in favour, probably because the alternative was to keep the Eighth Amendment and maintain the ban on abortion in almost all circumstances, including rape and fatal foetal abnormality.
Of course, polls in recent referendums in Ireland have not proven to be highly predictive, so even more reason to distinguish between accuracy and predictive ability.
The January 2018 poll showed 56% support for repeal, with 29% against and 15% don't know compared to 47% yes, 28% no and 24% don't know/won't vote/won't say in the most recent poll. So support for repeal has slipped by 9% in the past three months.
Since January, the government has published more detailed proposals allowing for abortion on demand up to 12 weeks, and thereafter if there is a serious risk to the health of the mother. The Catholic Bishops have been strident in their opposition and the No campaign seems to have been far better organised and mobilised particularly in rural areas throughout the country. Yes posters have been systematically removed from lamp posts and only No posters remain up in may areas.
The Catholic Church and associated pressure groups have a natural organisational advantage in every parish in the country whereas the Yes campaign appears inchoate, ad hoc, and more urban and social media based by comparison. NO posters have simple messages with lurid pictures of full-term babies being killed and a firm linked to Cambridge Analytica has been retained by the No campaign to help in their social media campaigns.
In contrast, making the case for a yes vote requires a much more nuanced discussion of the difficulties faced by women in various circumstances. However both sides seem to be preaching largely to the converted:
Asked about the strength of their conviction for their position, almost 80 per cent of declared repeal voters said that they would "absolutely never" change their mind, or were "extremely unlikely" to do so. Commitment to their declared position was even higher among retain voters.
Among voters who said they were undecided at this stage, twice as many said they were "leaning towards" repeal (30 per cent of undecideds) as were leaning towards keeping the amendment (15 per cent).
Voters also displayed a high degree of knowledge about the Government's proposals for what would come after the repeal of the Eighth Amendment if the referendum is passed. Asked if they were aware of the plans for legislation to allow abortion on request up to 12 weeks, 85 per cent of voters said they were aware, with 15 per cent unaware. The figure rises to 90 per cent among repeal voters.
The poll also suggests that commitment to the idea of liberalising Ireland's abortion laws retains a high degree of support; 62 per cent of voters agreed with the statement that the law needs to change to recognise a woman's right to choose, while 56 per cent agreed that the 12 weeks proposal, while they had "reservations" about it, was a "reasonable compromise" and would be an "improvement on the current situation."
By contrast, just 41 per cent agreed with the statement: "I agree the law needs to be changed but the proposal for abortion on request up to 12 weeks goes too far." A similar proportion (40 per cent) said that abortion "is wrong and should not be made more widely available".
So a 60:40% vote in favour of repeal still seems possible although NO voters are predominantly older and from more rural areas with a greater propensity to vote. So there is absolutely no room for complacency, and the actual vote count could be much closer than current polling suggests.
Having said that, I have never seen younger people so motivated around an issue and many who have never previously voted may now go out to vote. Many working abroad are even returning so that they can vote, as Ireland does not have postal voting.
The main political parties, both Government and opposition have lined out behind a yes vote, even though the membership of the more conservative parties is divided on the issue. However it would not be the first time that their advice has been ignored by the people in a referendum. Both the Nice and Lisbon Treaties were originally rejected by the Irish people by narrow margins in low polls, against the advice of the main political parties: Results which were reversed in higher turnout referendums subsequently.
So the moral of the story is that a high turnout is essential for the Repeal campaign to succeed. Anything less, and 30 years of social progress in Ireland might well be reversed.
To emphasize the political dimension of all of this, I have written the following letter to the papers:
Like many other people I have deeply held concerns about abortion. It can never be more than the least bad option in terrible circumstances and we should all work to make it's occurrence as rare as possible.
Strangely, however, I have no qualms in supporting a yes vote in the referendum, and this has nothing to do with abortion itself.
The key issue for me is not the desirability or otherwise of abortion in particular circumstances, but who gets to carry the ultimate burden and responsibility of the decision.
Should that decision be made by the expectant mother, in consultation with her family, friends, and medical advisors, or should it be made by the state or a particular church or pressure group on her behalf?
It seems to me that the decision must rest ultimately with the person who carries the responsibility (and risks) of bringing the pregnancy to term and caring for the child afterwards. The thought that we might try to criminalise and punish people faced with that awesome decision in often terrible circumstances horrifies me.
Best to be as supportive of the mother as we can in whatever decision she might make and interfere in her decision as little as possible. We do not need the state or private bodies getting involved in what is often an intensely traumatic and personal matter.
Respect the mother and her privacy. Love those effected by the outcome, whatever it might be.
Couched in conservative language, it seeks to make the case that even those who think that abortion is wrong in almost all circumstances can vote for repeal. It is a question of who has to carry the burden and consequences of any decision, and do we really want the Catholic Church to run our country and define our morals all over again?