IF A referendum to repeal the Eighth amendment were to take place tomorrow it would fail. If it were to take place in three or even six months time it would also fail. Of that there should be little doubt.
One might not think so from perusing social media, or tapping into what is undoubtedly a major shift in attitudes towards abortion in recent years. The winds of change are blowing across this State, but not at the rate of knots that some believe. When it comes to an issue as primal as abortion, middle Ireland needs to be coaxed into change, and history suggests that there’s a way to go yet.
Let’s look first at the record of referendums when it comes to issues wrapped up in belief, philosophy, religion and human rights.
In the year before the same-sex marriage referendum it was obvious that attitudes towards the measure had undergone a sea change. An MRBI opinion poll a month before the vote had the approval rating at 72%, with only 20% planning to vote against it.
The body politic played its part with the swift passage of a law on adoption rights, which included same-sex couples, in the months before the referendum. This ensured that children would not be used as pawns by those who were voting No.
The Marriage Equality group ran a first-class campaign. They appealed to middle Ireland with upturned palms, rather than lecturing with wagging fingers.
They humanised the issue. They put the more radical voices in cold storage for the duration of the campaign. They sought votes on compassionate grounds rather than expecting voters to deliver human rights for all.
Such was the campaign and the widespread acceptance, it might have been considered a no-brainer that the vote would pass. It did, but only by a margin of 62% to 38%. More than a third of the electorate voted to deny same-sex couples that which has come to be widely regarded as a human right.
How would it have panned out if the pro campaign had been less political savvy? Had the Government not dealt with the adoption issue before the vote, would enough have been persuaded to vote Yes? Difficult as it might be to believe 16 months later, but the referendum may well have failed.
In 2011 we had a children’s rights referendum to extend legal rights to children. Who could be against that? Well, 42% of the electorate as it turns out.
Way back in 1995, the divorce referendum was highly divisive and nearly impossible as it is to believe now, it passed by 50.2% to 49.8%, or a mere 9,114 votes.
History cannot be ignored when facing into another campaign to repeal or amend. In fact, it is safe to say that a battle over the Eighth is likely to make the other matters look like a Daniel O’Donnell tea party.
The most recent poll, in yesterday’s Irish Times, suggests that 55% of people would be in favour of repealing for abortion in limited circumstances. Only 18% are opposed to any repeal, with 19% looking for a regime similar to that in Britain. For those who want to retain the status quo, these are good numbers from which to launch a campaign.
That is the context in which some of the shape-throwing on the issue should be viewed. A private members’ bill on repeal sponsored by the Anti Austerity Alliance is due to come before the Dáil later this month.
This is an exercise in political posturing. If the Dáil chamber was flooded with an intoxicant that prompted all deputies to vote in favour of the bill, it would not make a whit of difference. The people are not ready yet, simple as that.
The first and foremost requirement to ready the people for change is a degree of certainty as to the shape of a new dispensation. What will replace that which we are being asked to leave behind? And in this case, more than any of the other contentious issues of recent decades, there is still no clear agreement on what exactly change will look like.
For instance, it is safe to say that most already campaigning and marching for repeal are in favour of the UK-style regime. For that constituency it’s a matter of human rights in today’s world; a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body.
Yet that is not where middle Ireland is at right now. As repeated opinion polls demonstrate, middle Ireland accepts that the current regime is too restrictive. There is compassion for those who find themselves forced, in tragic circumstances, to see out a doomed pregnancy. Some parents wonder how they might feel if their daughter was impregnated in rape and concede that yes, blood is thicker than some abstract concept of what constitutes life. But leaping to what they have in Britain? Not by a long shot, not yet anyway. So in the likely event that any proposed change would be to usher in abortion in limited circumstances, those opposed will be in a position to wreak havoc.
There are two aspects to this issue that must be resolved before there is a realistic chance of repeal. The first and most obvious is certainty on what replaces the constitutional provision.
As of now there is not even a broad consensus on what should be involved. For instance, should provision for abortion be made when a woman’s health as opposed to her life is in danger? Would more than 50% of the electorate buy into that?
These issues need to be teased out and some degree of consensus be arrived on what is likely to pass at the polls - which is the whole purpose of a referendum to repeal. The other matter is trust. If the most enthusiastic supporters for repeal actually want broader access to abortion than that which might form part of a proposed change, they must convince voters they are not working to a hidden agenda. If the attitude is that repeal is a first step and the day after the vote another campaign for a more liberal regime begins, then they will have a problem winning hearts and minds.
People are rightly suspicious about Enda Kenny’s motivation in setting up a citizens assembly to examine how to proceed on the Eighth. For 30 years politicians from the main parties have scurried for cover whenever the abortion question is dragged into the public domain. But some form of national conversation has to begin to drill down to a point where specifics can be agreed, and the process of instilling trust begun.
The amendment inserted in 1983 was an exemplar of the Irish political culture: ill thought-out, rushed, and craven to a vested interest.
Unravelling it will, in another long-standing tradition, be complicated and messy. Time to get started, but putting the cart before the horse will almost certainly invite failure.