Eighth Amendment referendum: Two sides marshal forces

Scope of potential new legislation and campaign strategies now under consideration

To those who oppose the legalisation of abortion, the recent recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly were “horrifying”, “ dreadful” and “chilling”. For those who have campaigned for Ireland’s abortion laws to be liberalised, it was the best day they have had in a long, long time – paving the way to make abortion available to Irish women on Irish soil.

Ironically, both sides had doubts about the process.

The pro-life side largely views it as a stitch-up, designed to produce the grounds for a referendum to repeal, or at least amend, the anti-abortion article in the Constitution, the Eighth Amendment, which recognises the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother.

The pro-choice side was less sceptical, though on the Saturday evening of the assembly’s last weekend – when it seemed that the assembly would favour only a limited liberalisation of the law – they began to criticise the process as chaotic and confused. Their doubts were silenced the following day when the assembly’s members voted to recommend a significant liberalisation, comparable to the situation in the UK.


Repeal campaigners have had nothing but praise for the process since.

That is the highly polarising nature of this issue.

But both camps now recognise that the assembly is done with. Over. A new phase, the run-in to a referendum, is now under way – and both are marshalling their forces.

There's a difference between being human rights compliant in practice and being human right compliant in law

One of the highest-profile campaigners for changing the laws on abortion – as he was for the campaign for marriage equality – is Amnesty International executive director Colm O'Gorman. He says Amnesty will campaign for human rights compliance in Ireland's abortion laws.


Human rights law, he says, requires access to abortion “at a minimum” in cases of a risk to life or health of the mother, in cases of severe foetal impairment, and in cases of rape. However, in order to guarantee abortion is available in these cases, it has to be available on request up to 12 weeks. “There’s a difference between being human rights compliant in practice and being human right compliant in law,” he says.

Pro-life groups fiercely dispute O'Gorman's interpretation of international human rights law, and Youth Defence and Life Institute founder Niamh Uí Bhriain stresses that protecting the unborn is, from her perspective, a human rights issue.

However, it is a fact that UN bodies have criticised Ireland's restrictive laws on abortion. It is also true that there is no legally enforceable right to abortion in Ireland under international law.

Amnesty will continue to campaign for access to abortion for now, “and we’ll assess our position when we see the referendum proposals”, O’Gorman says. But it seems certain that Amnesty will run a big campaign in favour of the referendum when it comes. He also hopes that the Assembly report contains recommendations for public funding for abortion services and for enhanced pre-natal scanning facilities.

Amnesty will be joined by other organisations which are part of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Any attempt to delay this won't be acceptable

Its spokeswoman Ailbhe Smyth says the coalition now comprises a "very broad social movement" with a presence all over the country. It is asking members to write to their TDs to urge that the Dáil presses for a referendum as soon as possible. Smyth and other pro-choice sources stress the sense of momentum they now feel towards reform. Many believe it is inevitable. "Any attempt to delay this won't be acceptable," she says.

That is precisely the view held by some prominent pro-life figures.

Serious threat

They believe that a moderate reform of Ireland’s abortion ban – providing for perhaps the legalisation of abortion in cases of rape, or serious foetal abnormality, or where there is a serious threat to the health, not just the life of the mother – might be endorsed by the electorate.

But they believe there is a much better chance of defeating a proposal which would largely provide for abortion on request, without restriction (albeit within term limits), such as the assembly recommended.

Therefore, they want a referendum as soon as possible on that.

“A proposal for a wide liberalisation offers the best chance of defeating the referendum,” says one prominent pro-life campaigner.

"I don't think that Ireland will vote for abortion up to birth for people with Downs syndrome," says David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, a Christian think-tank.

Several sources in pro-life groups said they expect the availability of abortion in cases of Down syndrome and other foetal abnormalities to feature heavily in the campaign.

They will employ whatever tactics and messages are needed to win

For many anti-abortion groups, this campaign is “ground zero”, says one source. They have been preparing for years. They will throw everything they have at it, in money and effort. They will employ whatever tactics and messages are needed to win. “This will not be like the same-sex marriage campaign,” says one.

"It's game-on for an abortion referendum in Ireland. The lives of mothers and babies are at stake," Niamh Ui Bhriain wrote on the website of the Life Institute, an anti-abortion group recently.


Uí Bhriain’s group has been organising canvasses for the past year and a half – in the past 10 days, they have been out in Waterford, Limerick and Naas.

Feedback from the conversations has helped the group to design its campaign and develop its messages, she says. Social media will be used to target the right messages to the right voters.

“We think people in the middle are leaning pro-life. We’ll use data to target the right people with the right message.”

Both sides are gearing up for a probable referendum in the spring of next year – but given Oireachtas timetables, that is the earliest it could take place. The Oireachtas committee doesn't report until the end of the year, and then the Government will have to decide what referendum it wishes to put before the people.

It will also have to decide what legislation – if any – it wishes to publish before the referendum, so that people can see what deleting or replacing the Eighth Amendment would mean in terms of legal abortion in Ireland.

None of these are processes that are likely to lend themselves to swift conclusions.

And then there is the referendum itself – which will take several weeks between the passage of the act of the Oireachtas and the holding of the vote.

Taking all this into consideration, next spring is probably the earliest a vote could be held.

Once you get into 2018, an election begins to hover in the mid-distance

Pro-choice say it has to be held then. Why? Because the Pope visits in the summer. You can’t hold it at the same time or afterwards, they say.

Question mark

The final variable in the timing of the referendum is the question mark over the survival of the Government.

Most people in Leinster House believe the Government will last through this year – though the impending change of Taoiseach when Enda Kenny retires adds a new element of uncertainty to the mix. But there are fewer politicians who think the Government will last to the end of next year.

Once you get into 2018, an election begins to hover in the mid-distance.

And if the Government fell, the question of an abortion referendum would be long-fingered until the next administration was formed.

That would mean an election in which abortion was a central issue.

If there aren’t many people in the Dáil relishing the prospect of a referendum, even fewer would welcome a general election punctuated by questions on abortion. But one or the other is surely on the way.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times