A NEW referendum on Ireland’s almost total constitutional ban on abortion is to be held in early summer.
The “eighth amendment” to the Constitution, made in 1983, which enshrined an equal right to life for both the mother and the unborn, has been a source of ongoing tensions ever since. It created a dilemma for the medical professionals, and failed to address the flow of women with unwanted pregnancies to the UK and the Continent for terminations.
On several occasions, the judiciary has called for the Oireachtas (government) to enact legislation to clarify individual cases, and the non-Roman Catholic Churches have suggested that such moral issues should not be matters for the Constitution.
In 1983, RC bishops and parochial clergy supported “the eighth”, and 67 per cent voted in favour; today, the influence of the RC Church has lessened, and same-sex marriage and full rights for LGBT are the norm.
The current minority Fine Gael government, propped up by the traditionalist Fianna Fáil opposition, acted on the issue last year by creating a citizens assembly chaired by a high-court judge. After several meetings, and views from expert witnesses, the Assembly reported back to the government with the majority recommendation — almost two-thirds of the vote — that abortion should be allowed with no restrictions.
When the Oireachtas received the report, the Dáil responded overwhelmingly in favour of the deletion of the constitutional amendment, as did members of the Senate, Seanad Éireann.
It was recognised, however, that a blanket freedom of access to unlimited abortion would not be acceptable; so the committee appointed by the government to set out the terms of the referendum proposed allowing abortion on demand up to 12 weeks. This has the approval of both leading parties, and of Sinn Féin.
The Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, has undertaken to publish an explanatory Bill on the proposals before the referendum, but the question remains whether, while supporting the removal of the eighth amendment, the legislation allowing abortion on demand up to 12 weeks will command the support of a majority of TDs (MPs).
A survey in the Irish Times, published on Saturday, showed that 56 TDs supported the proposal, while 51 opposed. A further 51 were undeclared or undecided.
The RC Bishop of Elphin, the Rt Revd Kevin Doran, who chairs the RC Bishops’ Conference’s Task Group on Bioethics and Life, wrote in a pastoral letter: “If society accepts that one human being has the right to end the life of another, then it is no longer possible to claim the right to life as a fundamental human right for anybody. A number of EU states have already legalised euthanasia.”
The Church of Ireland and Protestant Churches are in general agreement on opposition to abortion on demand, but would support the procedure where the health or life of the mother is in grave danger.
The Church of Ireland is uncomfortable with the availability of abortion other than in cases of “strict and undeniable medical necessity”, but, since 1983, has continually questioned the use of a constitutional amendment to address “complex moral problems”.