Abortion reform now entering the political process

Referendum will depend on what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agree between them

Voting on the pro-choice motion on abortion at the Fianna Fáil ardfheis earlier this month, in the RDS. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Voting on the pro-choice motion on abortion at the Fianna Fáil ardfheis earlier this month, in the RDS. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The vote at the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment this week is in tune with the overwhelming public view that Ireland’s abortion laws should be relaxed.

But the difficult bit is still to come.

The committee was always likely to recommend that the amendment not be retained in full. What it must now do is decide what question it wants the Dáil to put before the people in a referendum. The broad options are outright repeal, probably with draft legislation stipulating the grounds for abortion; a new less-restrictive amendment that recasts the balance between the mother and the unborn but still includes protections for the life in womb; or a more specific amendment that would detail the instances in which abortion should be allowed.

All these options, and the variations on them, are complex and difficult, and some are inherently unpredictable. They involve profound medical, moral and personal issues, about which there will be sharp and sometimes bitter disagreement. Lots of people will change their minds, many of them more than once.

Polls suggest that Irish people are a lot more liberal than they used to be on the issue though they remain, by international standards, quite anti-abortion. But many of them remain deeply uncomfortable with the difficult personal cases that their laws currently throw up. Reconciling – or at least finding an accommodation between those two positions – will be a difficult process.

But it is a process that the country, and its political system, has a responsibility to itself to undertake.

Compromise and fudge

But it’s also a political process. And politics involves compromise and fudge, recognising other people’s views, and often accepting what is possible, rather than what is ideal. This is not, to put it mildly, something that has been obvious in the debate so far.

Politicians realise that the time for decisions on the future of Ireland’s abortion laws is coming

That debate is now transitioning to the political stage and like a lot of things in Irish politics, the eventual shape of the abortion referendum will depend on what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agree between them. That is not a conspiracy. It is a consequence of voters having returned more TDs from the two parties than from any other at the last election.

We elect our politicians to make decisions on our behalf, and if we don’t like the decisions, we get to throw them out after four or five years, and try another bunch. That’s the system of parliamentary democracy. And though few of them relish the prospect, politicians realise that the time for decisions on the future of Ireland’s abortion laws is coming.

Not the ultimate decision on the constitutional article: that will be made by the supreme authority of the people voting in a referendum. But the decision on what will be put before the people in that referendum will fall to the Dáil and to the two big parties that dominate it.

What will the choice be? That will ultimately be a product of what is agreed between the big two parties.

That will become increasingly apparent, I think, as the committee nears the decisive stages of its work, and will cause resentment in both pro-choice and pro-life groups. The lobbying will be fierce. But that’s okay: it’s also part of the political process.

Three phases

That process will come in three public phases.

The committee will produce a report. The Government will consider it and make a proposal for some sort of referendum with associated legislation. And then the Dáil will decide if it wants to forward that to the people for its decision.

But there will also be one phase that will be less public.

The leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will decide what they think their parties should and would back, if they can agree on it, and whether it will get through the Dáil, given both men are committed to offering a free vote.

I understand there already exists an expectation on both sides that this process will take place in the coming months. The vote on the committee during the week was also a product of tick-tacking, I am told, between the two parties.

There is little appetite amongst the big parties for going beyond a limited liberalisation

At present, both parties have a reasonably settled view of what will get through the Dáil and stand a fair chance of getting the approval of the people. It is a proposal for allowing abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and a serious threat to the health of the woman – and not in other circumstances. Some voices close to them will suggest abortion access be extended in all cases under a low time limit – 10 or 12 weeks – but at present their view is that this would be a bridge too far for most naturally conservative TDs.

Little appetite

Repeal campaigners will point out that very restrictive legalisation or a similarly restrictive article in the Constitution will continue to leave most Irish abortions taking place in the UK or by the use of illegal abortion pills ordered over the internet and administered without medical supervision. And that is a statement of fact.

But there is little appetite amongst the big parties for going beyond a limited liberalisation. That may change, of course. But I cannot see it changing over the coming months.

That means the eventual proposal – a proposed constitutional reform and draft legislation that provides for limited liberalisation – may well be opposed as insufficient by pro-Repeal groups. Senior people in the Repeal movement tell me there is no appetite for a halfway house measure.

I think that to be successful in taking abortion out of the Constitution, the Repeal movement will have to build a broad coalition that includes people opposed to abortion in many circumstances. That, after all, is politics. But so far I see little effort in this regard.

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