Abortion referendum wording was seen as 'time bomb'

Fri, Dec 28, 2012, 00:00

The wording of the 1983 “pro-life” amendment to the Constitution was hastily approved despite one attorney general labelling it a legal “time bomb” and another expressing doubts about its merits, newly released State papers show.

On November 2nd, 1982, two days before a vote of no confidence in the Dáil, which led to a general election the following month, the then Fianna Fáil government announced the wording of the anti-abortion amendment, which went on to be approved by the electorate.

This was despite the government being warned by attorney general Patrick Connolly SC that a “pro-life” amendment “might well have the effect of threatening the right of the mother” to have a life-saving operation.

Foreseeing some of the problems thrown up by the 1992 X case, Mr Connolly noted that, “whatever my personal views be”, a rape victim could not be exempted from any constitutional prohibition.

Nor, “in the current climate of what it is sought to achieve”, could the amendment exempt abortion where the mental health of a woman was at serious risk.

Legal ambiguities

The Fianna Fáil government also had advice from the previous attorney general, Peter Sutherland, who argued that the amendment would create serious legal ambiguities.

A senior official in the Department of the Taoiseach told Mr Haughey, “I believe that this view may well be shared by many legal experts”, but this advice, along with concerns expressed by other officials, was dismissed as political pressure from anti-abortion campaigners.

The records also show Mr Sutherland’s advice was withheld from Mr Connolly in an apparent bid to speed up the process.

Mr Connolly was forced to resign on August 16th after the arrest of double murderer Malcolm Macarthur in his home.

His successor, John L Murray, a future chief justice, produced a list of possible amendment wordings a month later – and just six weeks before the final decision was made.

Mr Murray dismissed the Labour Party’s objections to the amendment as “grossly misleading and inaccurate”. However, he acknowledged a potential conflict of rights over the issue, and noted legislation by the Oireachtas “would be a reconciliation” of this, while making no specific recommendation on the matter.

FitzGerald’s regret

In subsequent years, Garret FitzGerald expressed regret for initially supporting the referendum wording, writing in this newspaper in 1997: “I bear a share of responsibility for the debacle of the 1983 referendum.”

The files also show that Enda Kenny made representations on behalf of constituents between August 1981 and June 1982, seeking to expedite the introduction of the amendment.

Within the large volume of correspondence released this year by the Department of the Taoiseach, no other TD made as many such representations.

Nine years after the amendment was introduced, it was invoked by the High Court to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from travelling abroad for an abortion.

The Supreme Court overturned the ruling as the life of the girl, known as X, was deemed to be at risk through the threat of suicide.

Legislation to finally deal with the issue was promised earlier this month by the Government.

At least 143,000 women have travelled from Ireland to have abortions in the UK since the 1983 referendum, official British health figures indicate.