Abortion referendum: Phoney war prevails until legislation is clear
The 12-week stance and the notion of trust – coming from both sides – is crucial to debate
The 2013 Rally for Life anti abortion demonstration in Dublin. The Government expects to publish the wording of the referendum next week. Photograph: Alan Betson
Last November, a group of 15 to 20 people who have pressed for changes to Ireland’s abortion laws for decades sat in the headquarters of the National Women’s Council of Ireland in Smithfield to listen to a research briefing.
One of the key messages for the forthcoming campaign, according to sources, was that “some change is better than no change”, and that they must be willingness to settle for less than some of them have long wanted.
At that stage, the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment had not yet settled on its position that abortion be allowed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – a position they reached a month later.
This is the legislation that the Government pledges to put before the Dáil if the Eighth Amendment is repealed, but, already, it is emerging as the weak spot in the pro-choice argument.
A majority favour repeal, according to a series of polls, but opinion is more evenly divided about 12 weeks. Change is desired, it seems, but the type of change is disputed.
The Government expects to publish the wording of the referendum next week. Then, the phoney war will come to an end. Those in favour of Repeal say their campaign cannot be finalised until the wording is clear.
However, anti-abortion groups have long been clear of their arguments. Next Saturday thousands of supporters will march together in the “Rally for Life” in Dublin city centre.
Meanwhile, three major pro-choice groups – the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth, the NWCI and the Abortion Rights Campaign – will come together under the one umbrella.
Orla O’Connor of the National Women’s Council, Ailbhe Smyth of the Coalition to Repeal and Gráinne Griffin of the Abortion Rights Campaign will be its senior figures. So far, they have yet to settle on a name.
Organisations, such as Amnesty International, will be aligned, but independent. Doctors for Choice should play a key role and Síona Cahill of the Union of Students of Ireland (USI) will organise the student vote.
The new umbrella group will bear a heavy load. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will organisationally sit out the campaign. Ministers and Fianna Fáil politicians in favour of repeal will essentially be acting as sole agents.
So far, senior figures in both parties are unimpressed by what they have seen so far from Repeal campaigners: “They seem to be completely disorganised,” said one Fine Gael figure.
However, Orla O’Connor counsels patience, saying that canvassing plans and other key elements will be established soon. “At the moment, we are pulling it together,” she said.
The main message of the new pro-choice umbrella group – whatever its final name – will be on the need to repeal the amendment, instead of what abortion regime should replace it.
“What we’ll be saying is that it needs to come out of the Constitution, no matter what comes after,” said Smyth. One reason for this, perhaps, is that there are differing views about the emphasis to be put on 12 weeks.
Smyth, for example, sees that as “a baseline” and “a minimum” for future progress: “It would be a huge step forward for Ireland,” she says. The campaign must be about repeal, not 12 weeks, she argues.
Not everyone agrees. Ruth Coppinger, the Solidarity TD, believes the public must be convinced of the merits of the 12 weeks threshold if they are to be persuaded to vote for repeal.
“We have to make the case for it,” she told The Irish Times. “It has to be a pro-choice campaign. Yes there are people involved who may not deal with the 12 weeks.
“If we don’t make a strong pro-choice in the referendum, we will have difficulty with the legislation,” says Coppinger. Others, however, differ: “I want to lock her in a room for the next couple of months,” said one critic.
Ministers, too, want to flip the argument away from 12 weeks. The nascent message is clear: without repeal, nothing else is possible: “We’ll have to try and turn it on its head,” a senior source said.
“We’re going to be saying that you have to vote Yes if you want any change. The legislation is a matter for afterwards. The risk is that the debate goes to the extremes.”
The No argument will be clear, Ministers accept, but it will be harsh, they argue – one that abandons women. However, their hopes that 12 weeks will not be the crux of the campaign appears to be wishful thinking.
“The option on the table now is to repeal the amendment, and there will be a difficulty afterwards,” said one political source. “It might come back to 10 [weeks], for example.”
Conflicting signals will be pounced on by the anti-abortion side. If the post-repeal message is vague, the door swings open to the “If you don’t know, vote No” argument, they believe.
John McGuirk, the director of communications for Save the Eighth, says there are “around 35 per cent of people who believe abortion takes a human life but think it can be necessary”.
“These people are not sure about the 12-weeks proposal. That will be where the battle breaks down,” he says, while others in the No camp believe that abortion to protect the health of the mother will lead to UK-style abortion numbers.
Save the Eighth is from the same stable as the Life Institute, headed by Niamh Uí Bhriain, who was in contact with anti-abortion TDs such as Mattie McGrath during the Oireachtas committee hearings.
Life Institute has also been aligned historically with Youth Defence, which Uí Bhriain led. Save the Eighth has contracted UK research firm Kanto, which was influential on the Leave side during the Brexit referendum.
Kanto will manage supporter lists, collate email lists etc, but electoral records in Ireland do not allow for votes to be targeted in the same way as happened during Brexit.
“The pro-life campaign have been on the doors for the past 12 months,” said one Fianna Fáil TD, “But it’s hard to assess how effective it has been. People are only now engaging with the issue.”
Much of the battle for key voters groups will be fought on social media. Social media channels show activists on “Life Canvasses” across the country even at the start of this week, before the worst of Storm Emma.
Personal testimonies and videos of individual cases supporting either repealing or retaining the Eighth will compete for attention on Facebook feeds between now and polling day.
During the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, the online campaign by the supporters of change focused on uplifting messages, filled with grandparents and gay grandchildren.
This time, the messages will be confrontational, more bitter. This time, however, it is the anti-abortion camp who believe that they will be able to command the positive agenda.
“We aren’t going to get a hearing from the [traditional] media anyway, so we’ll take it to the people,” said one anti-abortion campaigner, believing that an establishment bid for repeal can be beaten by a grassroots campaign.
As well as the Save the Eighth, the other major organisation campaigning against repeal is the Pro Life Campaign (PLC). Between them, they will have close to €1 million, although it is maintained this will come from small donors.
Smaller organisation such as the Iona Institute will play a supporting role. PLC’s main figures – Cora Sherlock, Katy Fenton, Caroline Simons, with Senator Ronan Mullen close to the group, too – are more likely to be prominent across broadcast media. The PLC has six full-time staff, although observers have noticed a significant increase in traffic to and from its headquarters on Lower Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin city centre.
Trust will be one of the key arguments of the campaign, on both sides. For the pro-choice campaign, it means trusting people to make their own decisions. For the anti-abortion side, it means raising doubts about politicians.
“Look at Simon Harris, he’s going to be leading the Government campaign and he sent a letter to pro-life people in Wicklow in 2011,” says Sherlock, referring to a FG letter which said FG was “opposed to the legalisation of abortion”.
Whereas the No side will be warning about placing too much trust in the hands of politicians, Yes will argue – as it has for some time – that women and their doctors must be trusted above all.
The research presented in November, however, strikes a cautious note here – the language of “trust women” risks stripping men from having a role, one that could see them abstain from the debate.
The milestones both sides have identified as their starting guns are approaching. Only when they have passed will it become clear who is better prepared, in terms of both argument and organisation.