More than 80% of the public want wider access to abortion to be made available in Ireland, an opinion poll shows.
In what is seen as a further softening of attitudes towards abortion, just 9% favoured maintaining the current restrictions where abortion is only permitted if a woman’s life is at risk.
That position was only made legal a year ago, suggesting the new law is already lagging a long way behind public opinion.
The vast majority of those surveyed, 81%, wanted either full access to abortion or access in the case of rape, incest, risk to health or fatal foetal abnormality, as well as risk to life — 45% of them favour unrestricted access.
In practice, that would necessitate a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution which guarantees equal right to life for the woman and the unborn. But the Red C poll for Amnesty International Ireland found the majority of people have little understanding of the legal position around abortion.
Fewer than half knew it was a criminal offence for a woman to have an abortion where her life was not at risk, and just 9% knew a woman in those circumstances could be jailed for up to 14 years.
That penalty was declared too harsh by 87% and the attitude was shared even by the 7% of people in favour of a complete ban on abortion, fewer than one-third of whom felt the penalties were reasonable. Full decriminalisation was favoured by 67%.
Confusion around the law was also revealed by the findings that only 35% knew doctors were prohibited from making referrals for women to abortion services abroad.
Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty Ireland, said the poll showed public attitudes in this country had undergone a major transformation.
Opinion polls carried out by other organisations in January 2013 and September 2014 had found that 29% favoured unrestricted access to abortion and 68% were in favour of abortion in a range of specific circumstances. Comparable figures from the Red C poll are 45% and 81%.
“People in Ireland are now, on the whole, more understanding of the situations women find themselves in and firmly believe they should not be criminalised for having an abortion,” Mr O’Gorman said.
“This poll demonstrates that on the issue of abortion, Ireland’s people are clearly way ahead of their government leaders.”
Mr Gorman acknowledged, however, difficulties remained in getting the eighth amendment repealed. Red C warned if a referendum was held, people might vote more conservatively than the poll suggested.
“We really need to move the conversation on to make sure that those 81% of people [who want wider availability of abortion] understand that to get to that position, we must repeal the eighth amendment,” he said.
The Pro-Life Campaign rejected the significance attached by Amnesty to the poll’s findings, saying it was confident if a referendum were held, a clear majority would vote to oppose wider access to abortion.
Deputy chairperson Cora Sherlock also said it was irrelevant to seek public views on the 14-year prison sentence on the statute books for illegal abortion. “Amnesty Ireland knows perfectly well that women are not prosecuted for having abortions. They very conveniently fail to point out that similar sanctions exist in other European countries but, just like in Ireland, women are never prosecuted.”
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