Abortion: putting it up to politicians

Having cynically passed the buck, the political system must now find the courage to act

Members of the Citizens’ Assembly have recommended that abortion should be permitted in the State in a wide range of circumstances.

 

The Citizens Assembly has performed an important service in setting out a bold agenda for reform of Ireland’s abortion laws. It has navigated a moral and medical maze that politicians would not touch, to produce recommendations that would reflect a new Ireland. And just as significant is the message to the Dáil that the legislature is the appropriate place to address the legislative challenge, and not the Constitution.

The unfortunate experience of several abortion-related constitutional amendments in the wake of the Eighth Amendment in 1983, and of attempted but failed amendments, strongly suggests that crafting water-tight constitutional wording is all but impossible, and that such measures are unlikely anyway to keep pace with the evolution of social attitudes. The great irony is that the Eighth Amendment, introduced supposedly to block the legalisation of abortion, paved the way – albeit inadequately – for it.

The assembly’s implicit rebuke to legislators for their cowardice on the issue echoes that of several courts domestically and internationally. In the wake of the Savita tragedy, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was only enacted through serious political arm-twisting. Though one might not think so from the comments of our more timorous politicians, the proposals from the assembly would do no more than bring this State to where much of the international consensus and practice on abortion stands.

In one of its more permissive recommendations, for example, backed by more than 80 per cent, it suggests that women should be allowed to choose to abort a foetus if it has a fatal abnormality, or a significant abnormality that is not likely to result in death. Britain allows abortion when “there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped”. The case for such a provision breaks new ground in Ireland, but internationally, however difficult, is well established. And the assembly’s willingness to recommend legalisation of abortion on socio-economic grounds reflects, for example, the provisions of Dutch law.

There is still, it is true, a balancing act to be performed by politicians – a calculation as to whether putting the full package to voters might see repeal defeated; especially when the conditions that permitted the assembly to examine abortion in such a considered manner will not be replicated in the heat of a divisive referendum campaign. And they will be encouraged to further dilution by those who want no repeal. But if the resounding majorities recorded by the assembly mean anything, it is that Ireland has changed. That it will pay to be brave and do what is right.

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