Anti-abortion campaigner offered to water down 1983 amendment in secret talks

Heated nature of debate evident in submissions to Garret FitzGerald

A nun hands out ‘Yes’ leaflets at the polling station on Basin Lane, Dublin, on polling day, September 7th, 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times

A nun hands out ‘Yes’ leaflets at the polling station on Basin Lane, Dublin, on polling day, September 7th, 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times

Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 01:00

A leading figure in the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) told the government in secret talks in 1983 that it was willing to drop its demand that “the right to life of the unborn” be enshrined in the Constitution if another wording prohibiting an abortion law was agreed.

The compromise offer was made in March 1983, a month after the new Fine Gael-Labour government had announced it was redrafting the proposed amendment due to legal concerns raised about its implications by attorney general Peter Sutherland.

However, the government’s redrafted wording was defeated in the Dáil and it was the original wording drafted by the previous Fianna Fáil government in 1982 that was put to the people on September 7th, 1983.

Two-thirds of voters backed the amendment which read: “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.”

Department of the Taoiseach files marked “confidential”, released today, record that Brendan Shortall, PLAC public relations officer, met officials in February and March 1983 for “informal” and “off the record” discussions.

While insisting the government honour its pre-election promise to hold a referendum, he said it was likely the campaign “would have to consider their own alternative wording to take into account” the legal concerns that had been raised.

‘Negative formula’
A memo dated March 14th notes: “Mr Shortall said that the campaign . . . appreciated some difficulty with the wording, and he thought that they would accept a somewhat negative formula provided that both the Courts and the Oireachtas were restricted from liberalising abortion in the future.”

The campaign proposed a wording that asserted the right to life of the unborn, with an added paragraph stating “no law shall be enacted to the effect of which would be to make lawful any act done with the intention of procuring a miscarriage”.

The memo continues that Mr Shortall phoned the department later that afternoon “to convey his personal [underlined] view that, if the first sentence ‘The State recognises the right to life of the unborn’ was a major obstacle, he thought that it could be omitted provided that the second paragraph . . . was included; he could not, of course, commit PLAC in anyway to this, but he would use his personal influence towards acceptance.”

Medical uncertainty
Documents show the AG’s office considered this proposal but advised that inserting a prohibition on “unlawful miscarriage” in the constitution would create legal and medical uncertainty and almost certainly lead to further troublesome amendments.

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