The decision at Monday evening’s cabinet meeting to hold a referendum on whether the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution should stand or not gives the people of Ireland a fourth opportunity to vote on the deeply divisive, polarising issue of abortion in 35 years.
Access to legal abortion, or the denial of that opportunity, is one of the great dividing lines of our time — and not just in Ireland. Some people regard abortion as a routine procedure with the protected status of a human right despite the ready availability of many safe forms of contraception. Others see abortion as an abomination and an affront to the great, and what they see as the unquestionable, gift of life.
Hardliners on either side of the argument make the most strident, sometimes inaccurate claims. In a society where the memory of Catholic hegemony is still so very fresh, those divisions are exacerbated leaving little if any room for moderation. Views on both sides of the debate are so entrenched, so very fervently felt that it is hard to imagine that the imminent vote will be the end of the matter. A decision one way or the other will not reconcile visceral differences so how we respond to the vote will be a defining moment in the evolution of this Republic.
For many years it has been a defining characteristic of this Republic that we have knowingly — and very gladly — washed our hands of the issue and subcontracted it to Britain. It is as if we imagine that by turning a blind eye to this 10-a-day actuality that we have not compromised our saints-and-scholars purity. This may seem a tolerable Irish solution to a sticky Irish problem but, once again, it pushes deep, corrosive dishonesty to the very centre of Irish life.
Last June the UK department of health reported that 3,265 women or girls gave Irish addresses at abortion clinics in England or in Wales, in 2016 which, according to the Irish Family Planning Association, brought the number of Irish women who chose this option since 1980 to 168,703. A vote to retain the Eighth Amendment will not limit this option. It would be wrong, but not entirely so, to suggest that Britain has already defined our abortion laws but it would be equally wrong to pretend that any cordon sanitaire we might contrive would have the kind of moral or practical integrity it might have if this alternative did not exist.
There are other international influences and even if we dismiss them we cannot pretend they are irrelevant. A United Nations committee has found that we violated the human rights of a woman who had to travel to Britain for an abortion after her baby was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality. Equally, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has questioned our restrictive laws. Ignoring these assessments may encourage a sense of sovereignty but that path is hardly consequence free.
The Oireachtas committee on abortion took, as it was entirely entitled to, a position that may be in conflict with those organisations when it voted against allowing terminations on the basis of an anticipated disability or even multiple disabilities. This seems set to be one of the most contested issues of the campaign. Those opposed to change suggest that by rejecting the Eighth Amendment we tacitly approve the removal of various conditions from society. That argument does not survive scrutiny as it is not possible to categorically identify foetal abnormalities until a 20-week scan which is far beyond the anticipated 12-week limit proposal. That limit was set at 28 weeks in Britain in 1967 and was later reduced to 24. There is a persistent campaign to have it lowered to 20.
The concerns driving this argument might seem more plausible if every ageing parent in the country could believe that their adult child, who is deeply loved but incapable of independent living, could rely on the State for protection after their death. Rather, we are closing trusted institutions and removing essential services for challenged individuals. The privatisation of these services and the growing reliance on poorly paid agency workers offers a more accurate picture of how our vulnerable co-citizens are cherished.
Early opinion polls suggest that a majority — around 60% — want change but that ratio will vary when what we are being asked to vote on becomes clear. It is not difficult to imagine that no matter what is proposed it will be opposed vehemently by determined figures in one camp or the other — compromise seems impossible. However, it is not impossible to imagine that, as we have already shown on several issues, that we have learned to live together even if we strongly disagree. Abortion may be the immediate issue but reaffirming that this is an increasingly robust Republic, where a dictatorship of belief no longer prevails is the real challenge.
Hopefully, we are equal to it.