Abortion Q&A: What next after Citizens’ Assembly vote?

To say most politicians are not relishing tackling abortion issue is an understatement

What did the Citizens’ Assembly just vote for?

The assembly has decided to recommend to the Oireachtas that it firstly provide for a referendum to change the article in the constitution that prohibits abortion in almost all cases and then - if that is passed - that Dáil and Seanad legislate to provide for the general availability of abortion in Ireland.

That would be quite a change, right?

You can say that again. Ireland has one of the strictest anti-abortion regimes in the world, certainly amongst western countries. Abortion has always been against the law, but since 1983 - when the eighth amendment to the constitution was passed in a referendum - the prohibition has been explicitly enshrined in the constitution, meaning that the Dáil could not pass a law allowing abortion and the courts could not recognise a right to abortion.


But some abortions are permitted now?

Only in circumstances where the life of the mother is threatened by the continuation of the pregnancy - including where the woman’s life is threatened by suicide - and that threat can only be removed by a termination.

That stems from the X Case in 1992, when a 14 year old girl, pregnant as a result of rape and suicidal, was allowed by the Supreme Court to have a lawful abortion. That law was not enshrined in an Act of the Oireachtas - which regulated the procedure - until 2013. In reality, despite the warnings of anti-abortion campaigners then, only a handful of lawful abortions take place in Irish hospitals each year.

So how did this issue end up at the Citizens’ Assembly?

Pressure to reform Ireland’s abortion laws has been growing in recent years, both from domestic pro-choice campaigners and from international human rights bodies, though pro-life campaigners dispute the legal standing of UN recommendations. Campaigners representing some parents who were told their babies suffered from conditions which meant they would not survive after birth, and who chose to travel to the UK to terminate their pregnancies, were also vocal. Meanwhile, campaigners continued to point out that some 4,000 Irish women every year travelled to the UK for abortions.

A number of efforts to liberalise Ireland's abortion laws in the last Dáil failed however, with the Attorney General advising that no significant easing of the ban was possible under the current constitutional provision. When Enda Kenny was putting the current minority coalition Government together 12 months ago, he agreed to refer the issue to a Citizens' Assembly of 100 people for their views. The assembly has now made its recommendations. And while it was expected the assembly would take a position which favoured some reform of the law, the very liberal position taken yesterday - essentially in favour of a UK-style environment on abortion - is a surprise.

So that’s it, we’re going to have a referendum?

Not so fast. The next step is that the assembly report - due to be completed before the end of June - will be passed to a special Oireachtas Committee to deliberate on. The parties and parliamentary groups are currently finalising their representatives for the committee, which will be set up when the Dáil returns. It is expected to have 20 members, and it is likely that it will agree on a chairman, plot out a work programme and engage experts in the coming weeks.

Once it receives the report, the committee will have until the end of the year to make its recommendations to the government and the Oireachtas, though it could conclude its work before then. Its standing orders say that it should report with its recommendations within three months of holding its first public hearing.

And then?

Once the committee makes its report, it’s up to the Government and the Oireachtas. A wording would have to be agreed for a referendum, and that wording would have to pass through both Houses of the Oireachtas. It seems unlikely that this would happen before next year. Once that happens, a referendum to change the constitution would be put to the people, who get to decide whether to endorse the change or stick with the status quo. Only after a vote which changes the constitution will the Oireachtas be able to legislate along the lines recommended by the assembly.

What is the likelihood of a legislative change?

Pretty high. Independent polls, such as those commissioned by The Irish Times, show a pretty consistent and large majority in favour of liberalising the law on abortion. However, the poll numbers suggest voters favour a partial or restrictive liberalisation of the law. The most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, for instance, published in February, showed some 60 per cent of voters are opposed to the legalisation of abortion where a woman "believes she would be unable to cope because of her age or circumstances".

That position is a good deal more conservative than the one espoused by the Citizens’ Assembly yesterday. However, what the experience of the assembly shows is that a more liberal position may follow a period of debate and discussion on the issue - which suggests that the campaign in any referendum will be crucial.

But it’s important to remember that the Citizens’ Assembly did not decide anything, it made recommendations. Decision-making on the issue rests with the electorate, and with the Oireachtas.

Are campaigners preparing for a referendum?

You bet. The assembly’s recommendations are a significant moment in the story of Ireland’s long debate on the abortion issue. They are a huge fillip to pro-choice campaigners and a blow to pro-lifers and certainly increase the momentum towards a referendum, even if it is not clear yet what exactly the question in that referendum will be. Attention now switches to the politicians.

To say most of them are not exactly relishing it would be an understatement.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times