On 25 May, Ireland will vote on whether to repeal the 8th Amendment to its constitution, which prohibits abortion unless a mother’s life is threatened. Based on opinion polling, the Repeal campaign should win. But polls have tightened in recent weeks. About a fifth of Irishmen are undecided. The result will almost certainly not be as decisive as the referendum held a few years ago, in which gay marriage was approved by two-thirds of the Irish electorate.
For most Irish people, repealing the 8th Amendment is a necessary step towards aligning Irish law with the rest of the developed world. Women shouldn’t have to travel to Great Britain to have abortions, as they currently do. In an increasingly secular society, moral questions like abortion should be a matter of personal discretion, not state policy. The Catholic Church no longer has the right to dictate social policy, having been hit by a series of awful child and sexual abuse scandals. Legislating for legal abortion recognises the autonomy a woman has over her own body. Predictably, the more radical feminist elements of the Repeal campaign have accused their opponents of misogyny, portraying the pro-life movement as a bunch of entitled men who wish to control women.
I tentatively side with the Repeal campaign, mostly because I think it’s a matter of personal conscience. I’m agnostic as to whether an unborn foetus is a human being, and at what stage life begins. I personally would be possibly uncomfortable with my future wife having an abortion. But for the most part, it should be up to individuals to decide.
Having said that, the Repeal campaign are making several mistakes. And if unchecked, they will continue to make them once they’ve won the referendum.
The proposed abortion legislation to replace the 8th Amendment isn’t up to scratch. It mandates a 72-hour waiting period after a doctor has approved an abortion before a termination can take place. In Britain, there isn’t such a waiting period. I don’t see why Ireland should have one. The law only allows for abortion up to 12 weeks, after which a pregnancy must be a serious threat to the life or physical health of the woman. The law doesn’t specify a justification for the 12-week period, as opposed to the more usual 24-week period. In these respects, the law would be considerably more strict than Britain. Perhaps this is to moderate the pro-choice cause to win the referendum, but I don’t buy the logic as far as policy is concerned.
But in one crucial aspect, the law is less strict than in Britain. Before 12 weeks, Ireland will allow abortion for any reason. This is de jure more liberal than in Britain, where there is at least a nominal mental health requirement. I think this is where the pro-life campaigners have a point. Gender-discriminatory abortion, or any other abortion based on prejudice, should be illegal, regardless of the stage of the pregnancy. In China, where abortions of girls are more common than abortions of boys, there is a severe gender imbalance in the population.
The Repeal campaign have also made mistakes in the way they’ve fought the referendum. The campaign has been too Dublin-centric (like most Irish political movements), and too middle class. There has been too little of an attempt to reach out to rural, working class Ireland. The radical aspect of the Repeal campaign is ugly. Even as an atheist, I disapprove of the rabidly anti-Catholic sentiment propagated by some pro-choice campaigners. They should try to accommodate practising Catholics, not alienate them, even if Irish Catholicism is a spent force. It’s also wrong to portray the pro-life movement as misogynistic. Many prominent opponents of abortion are women. No one has argued against abortion on the basis of female inferiority. Being pro-choice is no pre-requisite for being a feminist, whatever some radicals would have you believe.
None of this is to predict a loss for the Repeal campaign. They will probably win by a comfortable, if not overwhelming margin. The Catholic Church has lost most of the influence and moral authority it once had, having stayed remarkably quiet during the course of the campaign. But proponents of legal and safe abortion need to develop a consistent and defendable theory of what abortion is, and why and when it should be allowed. Proposing legislation that is obviously the result of political scheming is not a viable long-term solution. Equally, the more liberal aspects of the law will frighten pro-lifers, and to an extent understandably so. Having said that, the first step to a measured debate on abortion policy is the repeal of the 8th Amendment. I wish Ireland the very best of luck.