Here's an overview of what might happen if we were to repeal the eight amendment. Below I go into more detail.
The passing of the marriage referendum has resulted in two things: one, a call for Ireland to become a beacon for LGBT rights worldwide, and two, a call for a referendum to be held on the 8th Amendment to the Constitution, which gives equal rights to women and the unborn.
But if the 8th Amendment is repealed, what then?
Over the past two years, the major newspapers have published opinion polls detailing public support for various ‘schemes’ of abortion rights, which reflect distinct situations in which abortions can take place:
1. The woman’s life is at risk if the pregnancy takes place,
2. The foetus cannot survive outside the womb,
3. The pregnancy is as a result of rape or abuse,
4. The pregnancy could harm the woman’s long-tern health,
5. The woman is a suicide risk if the an abortion is not granted,
6. The woman deems it in her best interests.
The level of support expressed in these polls is outlined below.
As different polling firms use different methodologies, the graph does not depict a perfect trend. But the overall picture is that the Irish public broadly favours less restrictive abortion regulations but rejects granting abortion where woman deems it is in her own interest (32% in favour, April 2015).
So let’s tease this out.
Abortion in cases where a woman’s life is endangered, including through suicide, has been legislated for via the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. The public is more in favour of allowing abortion in life at risk scenarios (70%) than in threat of suicide scenarios (60%). Some argue the woman’s life is at risk in both scenarios, so why distinguish? There’s a swing of 10 percentage points here, and presumably those within that swing view threat of suicide as a less acceptable reason than threat to life. Maybe they view suicide as controllable.
As the legislation addressed both issues at once, some might say it overlooks those in the public that accept threat to life as a justification but not threat of suicide. Nonetheless, those issues would not be affected by repealing the 8th Amendment.
On the other schemes, the polls suggest consistent and similar levels of support for extending abortion rights to cases of fatal foetal abnormalities (63%), rape or abuse (67%), and where the woman’s long-term health is at risk (67%). So repealing the Amendment would allow for a change from the current policy to a publicly acceptable policy.
Current Policy: Abortion permitted in line with Protection of Life Act, but in no other circumstances.
Acceptable Policy: Abortion permitted in all circumstances except where woman deems in own best interest.
Some will say the acceptable policy scenario is not revolutionary and some would call it conservative. Others might say abortion on demand would follow if the new policy made abortion socially acceptable.
But even if the government of the day was to follow the polls, and was to legislate for abortion in all cases except where a woman deems it in her best interest, Ireland would remain an outlier both regionally and internationally. In Europe, our rules are the second most restrictive at present and would be in the top five most restrictive under the alternative scenario. Internationally, our current rules are more restrictive than those in Algeria and Benin, and our alternative rules would remain tighter than those in Azerbaijan and Bahrain.
So although repealing the 8th Amendment would indicate that we want new legislation, the polls imply that many thousands of women would have to continue to travel to the UK for abortions every year.
And all of this is very topical.
We have been told that the latest referendum shows Ireland to be a progressive country that can inspire oppressed minorities. Meanwhile, the polls suggest that repealing the 8th Amendment would not result in very liberal abortion rights. So some might ask the question: can Ireland assert leading light status in one area of rights and remain in the dark ages in another? Can the government fairly lobby Russia, Ethiopia, or Ghana on LGBT rights whilst being less liberal regarding abortion rights?
So the 8th Amendment debate touches on the schemes of rights publicly supported, the schemes of rights politically palatable, and the shadow of the marriage referendum. These moving parts make a referendum on the issue dependent on the public support for such a referendum. And they also make abortion on demand highly unlikely within a decade.
Sources: Irish Times / IPSOS; Sunday Independent / Millward Brown; Sunday Times / M&A.