Abortion referendum wording ‘should ensure it passes’

Eighth Amendment committee chairwoman calls for the Government to be ‘prudent’

The chairwoman of the all-party Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment, Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, has said it would be "prudent" for the Government to propose a wording that would ensure that a referendum on the issue is successful.

Senior party sources said yesterday that this effectively means proposing much more limited access to abortion than the Citizens’ Assembly recommended.

However, The Irish Times understands that the Taoiseach told Ministers earlier this week that the Government “has to be seen to do something” on the issue.

The assembly recommended providing much wider legal access to abortion than is currently the case. Its report is currently being discussed by the committee chaired by Ms Noone, a process which is likely to lead to a referendum in the first half of next year.


Any referendum wording will not be agreed by the Government until after the committee produces its own report, which is scheduled for December.

However, already many Fine Gael Ministers believe that only a much more restrictive abortion regime to the one favoured by the assembly stands a chance of passing through the Dáil and a subsequent referendum.

Other senior Fine Gael sources reiterated the view expressed by the Ministers.

“It would be prudent for the Government to want to put a question [that] can be passed successfully,” Ms Noone said.

“It wouldn’t make sense to put forward a referendum that was going to be defeated.”

However, Ms Noone also acknowledged the difficulty of knowing how exactly people would vote in a referendum.

Speaking to the BBC’s Women’s Hour programme, she said: “It’s very hard to know what people’s views are.

“The Citizens’ Assembly came up with quite a liberal position. They would have been in favour of abortion without restriction – you know, which a lot of people feel the Irish public wouldn’t agree with.

“But there’s no tangible evidence of what the Irish people actually feel, or actually would vote for in a referendum.”

Opinion polls

Opinion polls in The Irish Times have repeatedly suggested that voters favour liberalising Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws in specific cases such as rape and instances of probably fatal foetal conditions, but would not back general access to abortion.

Some Ministers expect that the all-party committee will produce a minority report – or possibly two minority reports, representing the anti-abortion and pro-choice voices on the committee – but hope that a majority of the committee will propose a referendum offering a limited liberalisation of the law.

Committee sources acknowledge that there is little prospect of consensus across the entire membership.

Spokeswoman for the Pro-Life Campaign Cora Sherlock said it was "entirely predictable" that politicians would be seeking to water down the Citizens' Assembly recommendations.

"The Citizens' Assembly was very extreme. It would lead to abortion on demand, and it's consistently coming back from the public that they don't want UK-style abortion in Ireland, " she said.

"There is no such thing as restrictive abortion," Ms Sherlock added. "I would expect politicians to seek to restrict the grounds for abortion in the referendum. But ultimately it boils down to the same thing – removing protections from one class of human beings."

Ailbhe Smyth, convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, said that Fine Gael Ministers were being “overcautious” in their discussions.

“Fine Gael got a big surprise at the Citizens’ Assembly, and if them I’d be holding my whisht for a bit. They should be listening to the committee rather than trying to shape its conclusions,” she said.

"It's a question of leadership and what kind of leadership will be forthcoming from Fine Gael – what is their commitment to their international human rights obligations and their obligations to ensuring women get the healthcare they need," Ms Smyth said.

She said the Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment would be opposed to any watering down of the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations. But she said it was too early to say if the group would campaign against a limited reform proposal.

“We certainly wouldn’t be willing to say we would blithely accept a halfway-house Amendment. But we’re not ruling anything out at this stage.”

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times