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Poll shows public support for abortion is cautious and conditional

More voters support reform than repeal of Eighth Amendment, survey finds

Anti-abortion demonstrators at the 2013 “Rally for Life” in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Photograph: Alan Betson

Repeated opinion polls have testified over recent years that there is an overwhelming majority of Irish people in favour of changing Ireland’s strict constitutional ban on abortion. What has not been clear is what they would like to change that to. Today’s poll offers a wealth of information on precisely this point. The detail will be discussed below, but the summary is as follows: voters want to extend access to abortion in Ireland, but only in relatively limited circumstances.

They may also – though the numbers are not certain – prefer to keep controls on abortion in the Constitution, rather than deleting the Eighth Amendment and allowing the Oireachtas to legislate on the issue.

For those who wish to see the Eighth Amendment repealed completely to allow for the sort of liberal access to abortion available in many European countries, including the UK, the poll does not make encouraging reading. The Irish electorate is a good way off that position.

So where are the voters on the issue?

First of all, it’s clear that people favour allowing abortion in several circumstances in which it is currently illegal.

Where the foetus will not survive outside the womb, 76 per cent say that abortion should be legal

Where pregnancy is a result of rape, incest or child abuse, 77 per cent of respondents say that abortion should be legal. Just 7 per cent believe it should be illegal in these circumstances, plus 10 per cent who say it should be illegal in all circumstances.

Where the foetus will not survive outside the womb, 76 per cent say that abortion should be legal. This finding will be of encouragement to the groups that campaign for such a change, including those who have told their stories of terminations for medical reasons in recent years. However, anti-abortion activists argue, citing some examples, that it may not be possible to say with certainty when a baby will not survive after birth.

A related question is in the case where a child would have a severe physical or mental handicap. In this case, 50 per cent of respondents say that abortion should be legal, with 26 per cent saying it should be illegal, plus 10 per cent who believe it should be illegal in all circumstance. Some 14 per cent of respondents say they didn’t know.


Woman’s life at risk

Three-quarters of voters (76 per cent) believe that abortion should be legal “where a woman’s life is at risk”, with 6 per cent saying it should be illegal (plus the 10 per cent “all circumstances” anti-abortion voters). A further 6 per cent say they don’t know.

A lower proportion, but still an overwhelming majority (63 per cent) of voters are in favour of legal abortion where the health – as opposed to the life – of the woman is at risk. Some 15 per cent say they are opposed to abortion in these circumstances, along with the 10 per cent “all circumstances” opponents of abortion, and 11 per cent are don’t knows.

Just 44 per cent of voters say they believe that abortion should be legal when a woman is threatening suicide, with 28 per cent opposed in this instance, plus the 10 per cent opposed in all circumstances.

This is perhaps surprising, as this is one of the few instances where abortion is already legal in Ireland (where a woman’s life is threatened, including by suicide, and where the threat can only be removed by the termination of the pregnancy). That was the whole point of the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Act of 2013, which codified the decision of the Supreme Court in the X case of 1992.

A majority of voters are opposed to the legalisation of abortion where a woman “believes she would be unable to cope because of her age or circumstances”, which is likely to be the motivation for most of the Irish women who travel to the UK for abortions at present.

The findings of today’s poll suggest a public that is ready for reform of Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws but are quite cautious about the extent of any liberalisation

Half of all voters (50 per cent) say they believe abortion should be illegal in these circumstances. Along with the 10 per cent of “all circumstances” anti-abortion voters, this indicates a clear majority of voters are against the central demand of repeal campaigners.

Some 28 per cent of respondents say that abortion should be legal in these circumstances, with 12 per cent saying they don’t know.

A clear majority of voters (68 per cent) also said that abortion should be illegal where the foetus is past 24 weeks, with just 11 per cent saying it should be legal.

Ready for reform

Taken together, the findings of today’s poll suggest a public that is ready for reform of Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws but are quite cautious about the extent of any liberalisation. If the findings of today’s poll were given effect by future legislative and constitutional reforms, Ireland would have a more liberal abortion regime than it does now, but it would still be extremely restrictive by international standards.

One of the key questions of the abortion debate will be whether the Eighth Amendment – enshrined in the Constitution as article 40.3.3 – should be repealed completely or reformed to allow for greater access to abortion but with some form of constitutional ban still remaining.

There is no majority on this, but there is a plurality in favour of reform rather than repeal. Some 38 per cent of voters are in favour of reform, with 28 per cent favouring repeal; 16 per cent say it should not be repealed, while 13 per cent are don’t knows.

The Citizens’ Assembly, which meets again this weekend to discuss the Eighth Amendment, is due to issue its report by end of June and a special Oireachtas committee will then discuss its findings, coming back with a recommendation by the end of the year.

Only then will the Government decide what sort of a referendum, if any, it wishes to propose. Its proposals, in turn, would then have to pass through the Oireachtas before being put to the people.

That is at least 12 months away, and probably more. Whether the Government lasts that long is anyone’s guess. But the reality is that this question may fall to the next government to deal with. In that case, many voters and campaigning groups will almost certainly seek to make it an election issue.