Geraldine Kennedy: Why I am a reluctant Yes to repeal Eighth Amendment
It’s a long way from what I voted against in 1983 to the right to abortion at 12 weeks ‘without any indication’
The 1983 abortion referendum was the most divisive political campaign I can ever remember. File photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times
There have been almost 30 referendums since the Constitution was adopted in 1937. I have covered the vast majority of them in my journalistic career. There have been more abortion questions put to the people in referendums than any other single issue in the history of the State. So, I have become something of a specialist on abortion. The referendum on May 25th is the sixth time around for me.
The first time was on September 7th, 1983, when the Eighth Amendment was put into the Constitution. It is hard to believe that it was held almost 35 years ago. This means every voter under the age of 53 years or so, depending on their political awareness, has no personal memory of that campaign.
So how did the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which voters are being asked to repeal or retain now, come about? There was no real demand for abortion in 1983.
There is no more direct source than John O’Reilly, who had a Letter to the Editor published in The Irish Times on April 6th. He, an engineer in Dublin County Council, was one of the top three architects of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) in 1981, along with the late senator Des Hanafin (Fianna Fáil) and prominent lawyer Prof William Binchy. They were the masterminds of the campaign to give the unborn equal rights to the mother in pregnancy. Hanafin was their entre to the political establishment of the time.
Protect the unborn
O’Reilly stated, in his letter, that the aim of the pro-life amendment was to protect the unborn child from the courts and serve as a guide to politicians. In I971, the US supreme court had imposed abortion by “discovering” a right to privacy. To the alarm of many, he added, the Irish Supreme Court had also used that argument in a case in 1973.
So, in the most volatile circumstances in the history of the Dáil with three general elections being held over 18 months in the early 1980s, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign set about to get the agreement of taoisigh – first Charles Haughey, then Garret FitzGerald – to put a ban on abortion into the Constitution. They both agreed.
It fell on FitzGerald to implement the wording of the amendment that, O’Reilly claimed, had been produced by Fianna Fáil just prior to the 1982 general election. For the record, the source of the wording of the Eighth Amendment has always been contested.
The attorney general, the late Peter Sutherland, warned publicly that the proposed wording could be the means of introducing abortion into Ireland. He was right. There would come a time when the wording had to be interpreted in the courts. I remember him inviting me into the Attorney General’s Office to read the hundreds of hate letters strewn under his desk.
The 1983 abortion referendum was the most divisive political campaign I can ever remember. It was the closest thing I can imagine to the divisions in the civil war: family member against family member for most of their lives. The debate spawned doctors, lawyers, bus men, taxi men for and against the referendum. PLAC succeeded in getting the message across that if you weren’t pro-life, you were pro-death.
So what are the differences this time around?
Thousands of young girls and mature women have travelled to England and elsewhere to have abortions, often in the most appalling circumstances of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. An unquantified number of girls and women have imported abortion pills from the internet and taken them without any medical oversight or aftercare.
Doctors want to have legal certainty about permissible medical practices when they have to evaluate the risk to the life and health of the mother versus the unborn. O’Reilly stated, in his letter, that the patrons of the launch of the amendment campaign in 1981 were the five professors of obstetrics and gynaecology and seven masters of maternity hospitals.
The Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists held an extraordinary general meeting recently to consider the repeal of the amendment after which its chairman, Dr Peter Boylan, retired master of the National Maternity Hospital, announced that 19 of their executive’s 25 members attended and decided to support the repeal.
So, as a journalistic witness to all of the abortion referendums over the past 35 years, where do I stand? Conflicted. It’s a long, long way from the Eighth Amendment that I voted against in 1983 to the right to abortion at 12 weeks “without any indication”. I read that to mean abortion on demand for any reason. Yet, how could one expect a girl to go through a rape trial today to prove her eligibility to get an abortion in Ireland?
The proposed scheme of the Bill to be enacted on the repeal of the Eighth, on examination, has some safeguarding features. Two medical practitioners would have to certify that, in their reasonable opinion, there is a risk to the life or of serious harm to the health of the pregnant woman; the foetus has not achieved viability; and the termination of pregnancy is appropriate to avert that risk.
I had to wrestle with my conscience for many weeks in this campaign. To be honest, we only have no abortion because we have exported it. What would happen after Brexit?
There is only one alternative to the Eighth Amendment and we have enough evidence, to use a nice word, that it compromised mothers’ lives. I am a reluctant Yes to repeal the Eighth, trusting this time around that politicians are cowards who won’t be engaging in the most divisive issue in Irish politics quickly again.
Geraldine Kennedy is a former editor of The Irish Times