Ground-hog day in abortion debate

We’re about to enter that difficult terrain again; the awkward landscape that is the land of abortion referendums. The constitutional referendum of 1983 that enshrined equal protection for the mother and the foetus in the constitution, and was carried by 67% of the vote, at the time seemed to be little more than a belt-and-braces exercise in ensuring that what was generally accepted in society was given the extra status and protection of inclusion in the constitution.
Some warned that we would live to regret the decision and in the years following Irish society was riven by a series of hot-tempered and often bad-tempered debates about abortion as the limitations of the Eighth Amendment were exposed.
Another factor was the changing attitude of a significant percentage of the Irish people, driven not just by the publicity given to particularly difficult circumstances (as with fatal foetal abnormalities) but by the growing unpopularity of the Catholic Church, in particular the perception of control over Irish society, fuelled by repugnance at the clerical child sex abuse cases and the way they were handled by Church authorities.
1983 now seems centuries away in terms of the sea change that has taken place in attitudes and values in Irish society – as the same sex referendum in 2015 amply demonstrated. In such circumstances there was a certain inevitability that the abortion situation, after a number of difficult referendums with extremely divisive debates, would have to be re-visited again. So here we are.
For some time now surveys have indicated that support for the absolute pro-life stance of the Eight Amendment (if it can be characterised in that way) had decreased with a comparable increase in support for those who felt it should be repealed. Part of the reason for this is that it is extremely difficult to argue for a theoretical position when difficult and often emotionally rendering individual case histories are lined up against it – as in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities. Another factor is the often one-sided debate in the media and the pressure political parties and individual politicians are under to give the nod to what presents as the popular front.
The most recent survey, carried in the Irish Times, represents the variety and complexity of attitude and support position as understood at present by the Irish electorate.
There are three main groupings. The first, numbering 18%, want the Eight Amendment to remain as it is. This group included Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, who recently made his position clear and it’s expected to include the Irish Catholic bishops. This is regarded as the traditional pro-life position.
The second group, numbering 19%, want the Eighth Amendment repealed to allow for abortion in most cases, as reflected in the workings of the UK abortion service. This group is regarded as pro-choice, seeking ‘abortion on demand without apology’, as an Irish Times poster representing that position proclaimed.
The third group holds the middle ground. They want the Amendment repealed but only in limited circumstances – to allow for fatal foetal abnormalities and pregnancy through rape. They present as 55% of the electorate.
While the three groupings in other surveys may indicate increases or decreases in levels of support as the debate progresses, the probability is that there will be little over-all change.
So what do the figures tell us?
One is that 74%, (19% plus 55%) that’s three out of four people want the amendment repealed. That’s a huge turn-around in the 67% who voted for the amendment in 1983.
A second is that 73% (that’s 18% plus 55%) have no appetite for ‘abortion on demand without apology’.
A third is that, in the unlikely event of the ‘pro-life’ (18%) and the ‘pro-choice’ (19%) combining their opposition to the centre’s ‘abortion in clearly regulated circumstances’, even together they fall well short of the 55% of the middle ground.
Understandably, in such circumstances, the government (and Fianna Fáil) are not going to rush into any rash decision. And understandably too the middle group, which, at present at least, seem to be garnering the most support will receive the tacit support of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
So while it may seem like kicking the can down the road, the outline of a possible response is emerging. The Citizens Assembly will meet in a few weeks time to deliberate on the issue. If, as is expected, they opt for a package of repeal-plus-legislation in the Oireachtas, presumably an expert group will have to agree the detail followed by a Dáil debate and a proposal for a referendum. That’s a bit of a journey and few, I imagine, would bet their house on all of that being wrapped up before this present government folds its tent.
A few questions remain. The above scenario may be a bit presumptive in that I get the feeling that while many believe that repeal is a foregone conclusion that may not be the case. Abortion is a much more fundamental issue than same-sex marriage and while many were happy to support their family members or gay neighbours in wanting to be married, I don’t think the same concession will be directed to those who want to abort their unborn, unless for very defined and convincing reasons. And who knows how extremists on both sides of the debate will eventually, by campaigning not wisely but too well, alienate their own ‘supporters’, as they are prone to do.
In any event, I suspect we have a long way to go.

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  1. Padraig McCarthy says:

    The polarisation of “pro-life” / “pro-choice” puts a smoke-screen over the more fundamental fact that we, like so many other societies, have failed to put in place the full supports needed for a woman in crisis pregnancy, so that it is not just possible but clearly the best option for her to bring the pregnancy to its natural conclusion and, if she feels unable to care for the child, to facilitate other options. There will always be crisis pregnancies. The fault lies in society, which effectively isolates the woman to bear the burden. It is less costly financially for society to do this rather than provide the supports. Our legislation at present serves pro-life negatively. It remains to put in place a statutory right to the supports required. The Eighth Amendment is often described in terms of very restrictive controls on abortion, whereas it does not mention abortion: the wording is far more positive in protecting human life. We have not taken steps to make that effective.
    As Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote in 1992: “Have women profited from abortion legality? Someone has profited, but not the woman who undergoes an abortion… Do women want abortion? Not like she wants a Porsche or an ice cream cone. Like an animal caught in a trap, trying to gnaw off its own leg, a woman who seeks an abortion is trying to escape a desperate situation by an act of violence and self-loss. Abortion is not a sign that women are free, but a sign that they are desperate… Women’s rights are not in conflict with their own children’s rights; the appearance of such a conflict is a sign that something is wrong in society.”
    The talks from the opening session of the Citizens’ Assembly are available at
    On that page submissions are now invited on the first topic the Assembly will consider, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

  2. Pat Rogers says:

    Thanks very much, Brendan, for another well-balanced, thoughtful reflection on what is such a divisive issue right now. Your analysis of what seem to be the preference of the majority about the future regulation of abortion seems to be spot on.
    I hope and pray that a fair number of our bishops and our politicians will give similar attention to the complexities of the issue, before making any public utterances. In a better-ordered society, people like yourself would be on the Council of State, to advise on how best to combine the quest for the common good with respect for the rights of the individual.

  3. Yes to Padraig’s observations.
    The ‘pro-choice’ v. ‘pro-life / anti-abortion’ binary implies that there can be no other position on this most difficult situation. Yet it is perfectly possible to be both anti-abortion and anti-coercion of women in the most difficult circumstances. Furthermore it simply doesn’t follow that support of coercive civil law on abortion in all circumstances is the only moral option for a Christian who believes that abortion must be a bad choice in almost all situations.
    Popes themselves when heads of state never sought to make the civil coercive law symmetrical with the moral law – and in fact developed a practice regarding the former in which prudence had to be applied, as a ‘limiter’ to the application of the moral law to civil law.
    It greatly troubles me that our bishops never advert to this legitimate prudential restraint upon the civil law when it comes to the most difficult legislative issues. By not doing so they play into the hands of those who want to frame the church as in favour of a moral despotism, as misogynistic, and even as ‘clinging to Christendom with its fingernails’. They need to look to this failure as a primary cause of the shifting attitudes even among Irish Catholics on this issue – and as an energiser of the ‘easier abortion’ movement.
    To say that ‘Ireland’ is becoming ‘pro-choice’ is therefore not justified either. All those who are both pro-life and anti-coercion need to find a way of raising our voices and gaining an identity that dissociates us from those who are indeed clinging to the coercive residues, and the rhetoric, of righteous Christendom. We are part of the ‘society’ that is indeed failing to address this issue with the compassionate care the situation needs.

  4. Abortion and contraception are closely linked and an issue we need to urgently address is contraception and good relevant, realistic sex education in our mainly Catholic schools. In Colorado when they introduced free contraception, the abortion rate dropped by 40%. The Dutch with good sex education and contraception advice have one of the lowest abortion rates in Europe. The reality is we actually have abortion in Ireland, it just happens to take place either in England or through abortifacients obtained over the Internet. I doubt any woman plans to or wants to have an abortion. Our legislation, spiritual support and education of both men and women needs to reflect this.

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    The debate on abortion and same-sex marriage hit the headlines this week in Canada.
    “Recently, Samaritan’s Purse asked her to sign a revised statement of faith, which included a new section asking volunteers to confirm that they do not believe in same-sex marriage or a woman’s right to have a legal abortion.”
    She was sacked from her coordinator’s position because she wouldn’t sign it.

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