Abortion referendum will hang on the undecided middle ground

Analysis: People ‘want to hear from women and doctors’, say focus groups

Opinion polls published last weekend suggest a tightening of the abortion referendum campaign, as it becomes clear that a large undecided middle ground will be the key to the outcome.

The Cabinet will today consider a draft referendum Bill, but that process will not be completed until after the Supreme Court has ruled in an appeal that begins on Thursday.

Last summer the High Court ruled that the unborn had rights beyond the right to life under the Constitution, a judgment the State is now challenging. The legislative quickening will only happen once that case is concluded. In the meantime, however, there are some clear indications of the shape of the race to come.

The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that its Behaviour & Attitudes poll found that 48 per cent of all voters supported repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bans abortion in almost all circumstances, with 30 per cent against, 17 per cent don't knows and 4 per cent who said they would not vote.


On the question of legislating for abortion on request up to 12 weeks, as recommended by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, the margin is smaller: 43 per cent in favour and 35 per cent against, with 22 per cent undecided.

The Sunday Independent also published a poll on abortion, conducted by Kantar Millward Brown, which showed 48 per cent in favour of the 12-week proposal, 33 per cent opposed and 19 per cent undecided.

Recent polls for The Irish Times have shown a consistent majority of voters backing repeal of the amendment. But an important part of the context in which voters will ultimately answer that question – what would replace the constitutional ban – was missing until recently.

With the Government’s adoption of the Oireachtas committee’s 12-week proposal and other recommendations, that piece of the jigsaw has been added. Inevitably, that will change the context of the referendum, which for many voters will become a vote on the 12-week question.

The most recent Irish Times poll, published in late January, confirmed the strong backing for repeal. But it also showed that support for the 12-week proposal is less firm, with 56 per cent in favour, 29 per cent against and 15 per cent undecided.

Support for the 12-week proposal, and the associated repeal, is somewhat softer in the weekend’s polls. That may reflect a variation in methodologies, or it may reflect a strengthening of opposition to the legalisation of abortion. It may reflect both. But to neither side – nor to observers of referendum campaigns in the past – was the tightening of the gap between the pro and anti sides a surprise. That is what tends to happen in these campaigns.

The rhetoric required to fire up each side's base may turn off the middle ground. The choice and delivery of the message will be crucial

Despite the controversy about remarks by Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty, who suggested on Sunday that the repeal side could lose the referendum unless there was a strong campaign behind it, most sources said she was merely stating the facts.

“There’s a long-standing traditional fear of unrestricted access to abortion,” Ailbhe Smyth, a key figure in the repeal movement, acknowledged. “But abortion is currently unregulated in this country. For 5,500 women there’s no safeguarding of them, no protection of their health or wellbeing. It’s clear there’s a major information job to be done here, by Government, by campaigning groups and by the media.”

Unsurprisingly, the Pro-Life Campaign welcomed the polls, saying that “as more people come to realise what repeal of the Eighth Amendment would lead to in practice, the polls will continue to move in the same direction”.

This may be an accurate prediction, or it may be wishful thinking, but it’s certainly true that anti-abortion groups have stepped up their activity, intensifying their canvassing reach and their poster and social-media campaigns.

But what figures in both campaigns admit is that although energising their own bases is important, the real battleground is among the fifth or so of voters who have not yet made up their minds.

The difficulty for both sides is that the rhetoric required to fire up their base may turn off the middle ground. Like all political campaigns, the choice and delivery of the message will be crucial. Both sides are putting considerable resources into researching and deciding these matters.

Government figures were phlegmatic about the polls – although, unlike the campaigners on either side, they have other priorities to see to as well. With a final wording and the beginning of the formal campaign a few weeks away – the referendum Bill must first be put before the Dáil – most politicians are not yet engaged.

Those who are say they will leave much of the campaigning to the civic-society groups. “Women and doctors – the focus groups and research all say that people want to hear from women and doctors,” said one Government figure familiar with the area. “Politicians will play a supporting role.”