Abortion: Facing reality in a changed Ireland

The debate must move beyond just ‘repeal’, to ‘what comes after’


As we open the next chapter in our endless abortion wars we would do well, as a writer here suggested recently, to reflect on Heraclitus’s dictum that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.

Much water has flowed under the bridge in the 33 years since the Eighth Amendment passed. It’s not the same debate, not the same arguments. Hardly the same country.

Over time, the X and Y cases and many more, Savita, amendment campaigns, the growing awareness of the abortion trail to Britain, and the 169,000 women who have taken it, the polls that show profound changes in attitudes, the new willingness of women to give testimony about their experience of abortion, have all transformed the landscape in which the debate takes place.

Importantly, an argument essentially about the ethics of “taking life” and when “life begins”, has been superseded in national discourse by one about the reality of abortion – unfortunate, touching every family, painful, but necessary. About regulating that reality and providing limited facilities here, not pretending we can wish it or disapprove it away.

And an emerging international recognition of the human right to abortion – at least in limited circumstances such as threat to health of the mother, rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality – has also put a new onus on politicians to legislate, even against their consciences.

The issue is on the agenda of a new citizens assembly this month. The assembly will have to address not just the possible repeal of the Eighth Amendment, but what would replace it, in the form of a new constitutional amendment or of detailed legislation to be enacted following repeal, setting limits to abortion provision. The bad experience with constitutional amendments would not, however, commend that path.

But, as Prof Gerry White wrote on these pages this week, repeal alone would be “a vote for uncertainty”. His contention that it would in effect also be a vote for abortion on demand is, however, hotly contested; yet the ambiguity he raises would certainly be seized on to stir fears among voters that he might be right. Previous referendum experience, notably on divorce, showed that voters would not be willing to sign off on a blank cheque to legislators. And they would certainly balk at voting through a UK-like liberal abortion regime.

Pro-choice campaigners have an important tactical choice to make – to copperfasten an eventual vote for repeal they will have to accept the need to limit their political ambition and engage in a debate about where the line can be set.

Can a consensus be forged, for example, about the acceptability of abortion when a woman’s health, as opposed to life, is threatened? Or to her psychological health? The debate must move beyond just “repeal”, to “what comes after”.