Abortion: early signs of shifting opinion

Unlike in 1983, it’s the repeal side that is setting the terms of the debate

The past week has offered plenty to remind us how, in Irish public life, things tend to stay the same. Headlines are dominated by trouble in An Garda Síochána, crisis in the health service and political deadlock in Northern Ireland. The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll showed that the two parties that have dominated politics for a century, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are reasserting their duopoly.

The housing crisis is alarming proof that the lessons of the crash were never fully absorbed. To top it all, the issue of the day is abortion – source of the most persistent and poisonous social debate in Ireland since Independence.

But the current discussion on abortion is also a daily reminder of how, beyond the headlines and beneath the surface, social attitudes – the deep grammar of Irish society – have transformed. The leaders of the major parties are poised to vote for a referendum to remove the Eighth Amendment – the ban on abortion – from the Constitution, and to legislate for terminations up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

In the early 1980s, anti-abortion campaigners out-manoeuvered their opponents en route to winning public support for the constitutional prohibition. Today the balance of power has been reversed. It is the repeal side that has done the running and set the terms of the debate, and the anti-abortion campaigners who are struggling to keep up.


The findings of the Ipsos MRBI poll on the issue underline the scale of that reversal. It shows that 56 per cent of respondents say they will vote to change the Constitution so the Government can legislate for abortion on request up to 12 weeks. Just 29 per cent replied no to that question, with 15 per cent saying they don’t know or have no opinion.

Although support for repeal is stronger in urban areas, in no region in the country does it dip below 50 per cent. This is a remarkable figure

Although support for the proposal is stronger in urban areas, in no region in the country does it dip below 50 per cent. And while a majority of those aged over 50 are opposed, that is counteracted by exceptionally strong support among younger voters. Seventy-four per cent of 18-24-year-olds are in favour. Given the relative ease with which the Eighth Amendment passed in 1983 – it won the approval of 67 per cent of the electorate – these are remarkable figures. Some may feel 1983 is the distant past. In historical terms, it’s yesterday.

It has been clear for some time that the Eighth Amendment no longer reflects the views of the people. The poll shows that there has also been a striking move towards liberalisation in the past year. But the outcome of the referendum is far from a foregone conclusion. The campaign will be difficult and unpredictable, and the fact that support is so much stronger among younger voters than among older generations means turnout could be decisive.