Abortion wars will be fought on the street, online and in the Dáil

Campaign will be a clash of moral absolutes, with each side convinced of the justice of its position

Campaigners mark International Safe Abortion Day by staging a march in Brussels calling for equal abortion rights in all European countries. Video: Reuters


Tens of thousands of people will march through Dublin today in support of the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion laws in the now annual March for Choice that has become a rallying point for the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

As the campaign gathers pace in anticipation of a referendum next year, it is expected to be the largest ever such march. Demonstrations will also take place in London, Paris, New York, Brussels and other cities.

However anti-abortion activists will also gather in smaller groups in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway to hold events to publicise their campaign to defend the amendment, which gives an equal right to life to the unborn child and the mother.

The Pro-Life Campaign insists it is not a counterdemonstration, and it does not plan to cross the path of the pro-choice march. But just as pro-choice demonstrators turned up for the pro-lifers’ big march in July, the anti-abortion campaigners won’t leave the field clear for their opponents. As a divisive and bitter campaign looms on the horizon, the opposing campaigns are getting in each others’ faces.

Both groups have appeared outside the Dáil in recent weeks, as the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment began its deliberations inside Leinster House. They remained largely separate and civil, but online of course, it’s a different story.

Cancelled events

Anti-abortion campaigners said that three Dublin hotels cancelled their events during the week at which survivors of rape and a person born after a rape were due to speak to make the case against legalising abortion in cases of rape. Campaigners say the hotels’ decisions to cancel the events came after they were bombarded on social media by pro-choice campaigners. Pro-choice campaigners responded by saying their events had been cancelled too.

Even language is contested. To people campaigning to preserve the Eighth Amendment, their opponents are “pro-abortion”, not “pro-choice”; to people seeking repeal of the amendment, their opponents are “anti-choice”, not “pro-life” as they describe themselves.

The forthcoming campaign will very likely be marked by rancour and bitterness. It is a clash of moral absolutes, with each side utterly convinced of the justice of its position. While the public faces of each campaign are careful to stress (in public anyway) their respect for the other’s point of view, it is clear that many campaigners on either side really, really dislike their opponents. They don’t just abhor their arguments; they dislike them personally.

Online campaigns are stepping up. TDs and Senators are being bombarded with emails from campaigners on both sides to the extent that many politicians shudder when they think of what’s to come. Others know that this is the job they looked for. All know they cannot escape it. Ireland is having a debate about abortion and politics will be at the centre of it. In a way, this is what politics is for.

December deadline

For the next 2½ months, the focus will be the all-party Oireachtas committee formed to consider the report of the Citizens’ Assembly and to recommend a way forward to the Government and the Oireachtas. It has a deadline of December to complete its work.

The Taoiseach has already indicated the Government is thinking of a referendum next May or June: so the job of the committee will be to recommend what sort of referendum should take place.

This week, we got some firm indications of the direction the Government would like the committee to move in. A pre-Cabinet discussion among Fine Gael Ministers, reported in Thursday’s Irish Times, revealed that most Ministers think that a constitutional amendment and associated legislation based on the Citizens’ Assembly report would not pass “party, Dáil or country”. Most members of the assembly recommended abortion without restriction.

Watered down

In blunt terms, they want the assembly’s recommendations watered down and to proceed with a much less liberal proposal. This would probably allow for abortion only in cases of rape, fatal foetal abnormality and where the health of the woman was seriously threatened by the continuation of the pregnancy.

That would mean that the vast majority of Irish abortions (which currently take place in the UK, or via abortion pills ordered online) would remain illegal here. Ministers want this both because it is the personal preference of many of them, but also because it is their political judgment that a more liberal proposal would be rejected – either by the Dáil, or by the people in a referendum.

Rejecting the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations will be fiercely resisted by the pro-choice members on the committee. And probably by the anti-abortion members as well. Insiders expect two minority reports, one from each side. The question is whether the middle ground can agree on a way forward.

The watered-down referendum – if that is what happens – will present a strategic dilemma for the pro-choice campaign. Do they reject it and press for a more liberal regime, or do they campaign wholeheartedly for it as a step in the road, seeking a further referendum and future legislation?

Activists can see arguments either way. Some point to the experience of the marriage equality referendum. The gay rights movement was profoundly split several years ago on the question of civil partnership, with some activists believing they were accepting “second class citizen” status, while others viewed it as a necessary step on the road to full marriage rights.

Others believe they will get one shot at this – that there will be no political desire to reopen the abortion question and they must seize this opportunity to change the law. They believe they can mirror the experience of the Citizens’ Assembly, which ended up at a much more liberal position after lengthy deliberations. Most of all they want a referendum on full access to abortion because they believe they can win.

That’s the same view that their opponents have. Many senior figures on the anti-abortion side want this referendum, and they want it now, because they believe this is their best chance. Some of them express doubt that they could win a referendum on limited access to abortion – rape, fatal foetal conditions, health of the woman – but they are pretty confident they can win a vote on a full liberalisation of the abortion laws.

Opinion polls tend to support that view, but polls can change over the course of a campaign, of course.

Lives saved

Anti-abortion campaigners will focus on what they say are the lives saved by the Eighth Amendment. They will also focus on people with disabilities, warning that, for example, much fewer people with Down syndrome are born in countries with legal abortion because the pregnancies are terminated.

Pro-choice campaigners will seek to focus on the rights of women. They will point out that thousands of Irish woman already have abortions. And they will show that Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws are highly unusual by international standards and, they insist, contravene international human rights obligations.

UN committees have certainly issued adverse findings about Ireland’s laws and the Government’s obligations to women, though these are not justiciable in the Irish courts.

One way or another, Irish voters – and their politicians – will have to decide for themselves what they want their laws on abortion to be.