Significant majority favour replacing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution – but how?

‘Irish Times’/Ipsos MRBI poll findings confirm support for limited reforms on access to abortion services

 

It has been clear for some time that a significant majority wishes to see abortion legalised to provide limited access in specific hard cases. That ethically-shaded landscape is a sharp contrast to the black and white “abortion-is-killing” reality of a couple of decades ago – a measure, arguably, of a new, more tolerant Ireland.

The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll once again recorded the nuanced nature of the consensus, with support for abortion rights in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality or threat to life of the mother running strongly at 76 to 77 per cent.

That represents a rise in support for legalisation on polls conducted for the The Irish Times in 2016 which recorded figures of 67 per cent (July) and 55 per cent (October) for limited access to abortion. Where a woman’s health is seen as at risk, the majority favouring a right to abortion falls to 63 per cent for, to 25 per cent against.

On the other hand, liberalisation majorities are far smaller in cases where the child would be likely to be severely mentally or physically handicapped (by 50 per cent to 36 per cent), or where a woman is threatening suicide (44 per cent to 38 per cent) – where abortion is already actually permitted under the current regime.

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A clear majority against legalisation is recorded in cases where a woman believes she would be unable to cope (28-60 per cent), a category akin to what is deemed “social abortion” or “abortion on demand”. That is also overwhelmingly so with abortion post-24 weeks (11- 78 per cent).

How then to repeal the Eighth Amendment? Clearly on a limited basis. And although our poll did not ask the question directly, voters would certainly not appear to be inclined to vote for repeal without clarity in advance about what would replace it.

That reality must be a central consideration for the repeal campaign. Voters, moreover, remain significantly distrustful of politicians, with clear majorities demanding replacement with another constitutional provision, rather than leaving a new framework for abortion provision to the Dáil.

In part that desire for continued constitutional protection reflects a feature of our political culture, an almost sentimental attachment to the Constitution as expression of the people’s will, in part a fear in this age of “anti-politics” that politicians will not wish to or be able to limit the further liberalisation of abortion.

Representative democracy is still not rooted in our consciousness, still not trusted. But that is deeply problematic. Constitutions are arguably the place for declarations of principle, not the setting out of their operational detail. No issue’s history proves the point more clearly than our repeated failure over decades to introduce definitive clarity to our Constitution’s abortion provisions.

It is likely, however, that political expediency will prevail again. The line of least resistance.

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