Public unlikely to endorse assembly call for abortion on request

Analysis: Deciding how much access there is to abortion is a fraught business for politicians

Justice Mary Laffoy, chair at The Citizens’ Assembly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Justice Mary Laffoy, chair at The Citizens’ Assembly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Under this Government or the next one, to a greater or lesser degree, Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws are likely to change. Poll after poll has shown that the public is significantly more liberal on the issue than the current law of the land.

Moreover, the issue is now firmly on the political agenda, after many years of being pretty much on the backburner. An Oireachtas committee will shortly commence consideration of the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations, with the expectation of a referendum in the middle distance.

The momentum towards a referendum to delete or replace the Eighth Amendment and legislation allowing greater access to abortion is slow, but probably ultimately unstoppable.

But how much access to abortion? That is the question the country – and firstly, its politicians – have to answer. It is a complicated and fraught business.

The Citizens’ Assembly debated abortion over several months, hearing from experts and advocates from both pro-life and pro-choice sides, and concluded at the end of April with a series of votes.

It voted to extend access to abortion with “no restriction as to reasons” by a majority of nearly two-thirds (64 per cent); of these, fewer than half (48 per cent) said that abortion should be restricted to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Specific circumstances

A series of the assembly’s other votes recommended the legalisation of abortion in specific circumstances. While the assembly’s formal report to the Oireachtas is still in preparation (it is due to be submitted before the end of June) it’s clear that the body has gone further than most observers, or its political sponsors, anticipated.

The question is whether it has gone further than the electorate would like, or tolerate.

The evidence of today’s poll suggests that Irish voters do not share the views of the assembly on the extent of liberalisation.

Pro-choice activists hailed the assembly’s result and praised the process because they agreed with it, just as anti-abortion groups rejected the results and criticised the entire undertaking as being biased against their sides. But that’s the campaigners, the motivated partisans on either side. What about the actual electorate, which will ultimately decide these questions?

Despite what many claimed in the aftermath of the assembly’s conclusion, it wasn’t designed to be representative of people’s views on abortion. If it was, there would have to be 1,000 members, not 100. So what does the public actually think?

The evidence of today’s poll suggests that Irish voters do not share the views of the assembly on the extent of liberalisation.

They believe that Ireland’s abortion laws should be changed, for sure: there are solid majorities for legalising abortion in cases of a serious physical or mental risk to the women’s health, in cases of rape, or a foetal abnormality that makes death likely.

But voters are split in cases of a foetal abnormality where death is not likely (36 per cent favour liberalisation, 47 per cent oppose it) and categorically against abortion for socio-economic reasons.

Asked simply if abortion should be available on request, two-thirds (67 per cent) say no.

Anti-abortion

Opposition varies between demographic, social and geographic groups, but nowhere does it dip below 50 per cent. Fianna Fáil supporters are most anti-abortion (80 per cent oppose abortion on request), but even among supporters of the Labour Party, the major party most associated with the cause of repealing the Eighth Amendment, a majority (52 per cent) oppose abortion on request.

This is not a flash in the pan. It is a consistent trend in impartial polling. The last Irish Times poll, published in March, made similar findings. Today’s poll says that the assembly process has not impacted on the public’s views.

The broader historical trend is in favour of liberalisation. Ireland, though anti-abortion by international standards, is less anti-abortion than it was.

For pro-choice campaigners, the poll shows again the limit of what is politically possible. They must decide whether they want to pursue a limited liberalisation, or whether they want to campaign for a wider availability of abortion that – on foot of these polls – looks certain to be defeated.

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