Even as the familiar arguments are rehearsed in the Oireachtas committee on the eighth amendment, and politicians fret about the public debate to come, voters appear to have a reasonably consistent view of the issue.
The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll reiterates and amplifies the findings of previous polls on the same issue.
Previously, The Irish Times' polls have asked questions on various aspects of the abortion issue. We have asked about people's attitudes to the general issue, and about the specific recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly.
The results have been pretty clear. Voters want to see a repeal of the eighth amendment and they want to see Ireland’s strict ban on abortion relaxed.
However, they are cautious and conservative about it – and say they don’t want to see general access to abortion enshrined in Ireland’s laws.
In today’s poll, we asked about voters’ views on two broad possibilities for an abortion referendum: one which would permit limited abortion in certain circumstances, and the second allowing for general availability. We then asked how they would vote on either of these possibilities.
Currently, the Oireachtas committee on the eighth amendment is considering the report of the Citizens’ Assembly. It will advise the Government in due course what kind of referendum it favours, and what kind of legislation should accompany it. Ultimately the Government will propose and the Oireachtas will decide.
That decision is likely to be made between options along the lines of today’s questions: general access versus limited access. So, what does the public think?
Voters were asked if they were in favour of amending the Constitution “to allow for abortion in limited circumstances such as fatal foetal abnormality, rape or real risk to the life of the woman”; or amending the Constitution “to allow for abortion in all circumstances – abortion would be allowed up to the 22nd week of pregnancy”. They were also asked if they favoured “no referendum at all”.
There was a clear majority (57 per cent) in favour of the more limited option. Less than a quarter of voters (24 per cent) favoured the second option, while 10 per cent said they didn’t want a referendum at all. Just 8 per cent said they didn’t know.
The numbers were broadly consistent across social classes and even across party voters, though Fine Gael voters are more in favour of the limited option, and Independent voters more likely to favour the general access option.
The message of the first question on the type of referendum voters favour is reinforced by their responses to the second and third questions: how would they vote on either referendum?
A large majority (70 per cent) say they would vote in favour of the limited option if that was the question in a referendum, with just 17 per cent against.
Asked about the option of more general access to abortion up to 22 weeks, the result is closer but also decisive. Half of voters say they would vote against such a proposal, just over a third (35 per cent) would support it, while 15 per cent are don’t-knows.
Of course, nothing in these polls suggests the public won’t change its mind. But equally, the numbers contain no sign it will change its mind imminently.
For sure, looked at in an historical trend, Ireland is on course for greater liberalisation of its abortion laws.
After all, over a third of voters want general access to abortion up to 22 weeks – a long way from a majority, but a hell of a lot closer than it would have been a decade ago. Younger people are considerably more pro-choice than their older compatriots – among 18-24 year old voters expressing a preference, there is a majority in favour of the general access option. The trend is clear.
But the Government is considering a referendum next year, not in 10 years’ time. And on the basis of these numbers, if the proposal is along the lines suggested by the Citizens’ Assembly and favoured by many repeal campaigners, the referendum will be voted down.