MNA NA HEIREANN
Barring a last minute surge in support for those opposing repeal, by the time you read this the Eighth Amendment will have been removed from the Irish Constitution. The current wording in Article 40.3.3, in which the “State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn … with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother” will be replaced by the following one line “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”
Nothing is certain in Irish referenda. A low poll (where the diehards are sure to turn out), overconfidence, complacency, or the sudden ignition of some aspect of an issue sufficient to change minds at the last minute, are all factors, something which could still play out where an emotive issue like abortion is involved. There is also in the Irish electorate, undoubtedly, an element of “the Devil you know…” with a reluctance to opt for change, particularly where the consequences are unclear. The voters have also shown they are loath to give more power to politicians, something which could also be a factor on May 25.
The Eighth Amendment was introduced in 1983 by a two to one majority after an acrimonious and passionate campaign. Subsequent referenda to attempt to address issues generated by the flawed wording in the original were also high on emotion, with the percentage opposing any liberalisation generally close to forty. Indeed a proposal to remove the threat of suicide as one of the limited grounds for abortion was defeated by less than 1% (10,556 votes) in 2002.
This time there has been up to now less passion, in large part because the issues have been fully aired and debated, and because the power, influence and prestige of the Catholic Church, though still considerable, is now much diminished. Apart from the usual antics of fanatics the debate this time around has been sober and reasoned and concentrated on the right of women to choose. The deliberations of the much maligned Citizens’ Assembly, which came down firmly for repeal, and the subsequent debates in the Dail have served also to dispel much of the misunderstanding and emotion for the average middle-ground voter.
The reasons why women opt for abortion are now recognised as complex and the issue as not black and white. The blunt truth that there already IS a regime of abortion in Ireland, with several thousand women travelling annually to England, with others buying unregulated abortion pills over the Internet, has also played its part, by pointing up the hypocrisy involved in denying Irish women the right to have the procedure performed safely locally.
The latest opinion polls show 44% for repeal, 32% against and 17% undecided with a classic tightening of the race emerging as polling day nears. The one issue that has generated unease and which probably accounts for the relatively high percentage of undecided, has been the suggestion, put forward in an options paper from the Department of Health, that subsequent legislation would, inter alia, as well as catering for threats to the mother’s health and for fatal foetal abnormalities, provide for abortion on demand for up to twelve weeks.
The polls identify this as the one issue on which many pro- Choice voters are “soft.” Though the No campaign is seeking to exploit this, whether it will prove a game changer in the final days is less certain. It is not after all up for vote and it is by no means certain that any legislation to that effect would pass through the Dail; one can imagine the nature of THAT debate! The polls also show the usual division on age grounds (those over 50 favouring NO) and a definite rural-urban split, with the west of the country now evenly balanced and the south and east, led massively by Dublin, favouring a Yes vote.
There have been numerous harrowing accounts in the media of women’s health and even lives (remember Savita Halapanavar) affected by the constraints the Eighth has placed on the medical profession to provide adequate treatment for pregnant women in emergency situations. These apart, developments concerning societal attitudes to women and women’s rights in other areas have featured strongly in the public consciousness and the media in recent months. Overall, though separate from abortion, these should boost support for the Yes side. They have certainly prompted an increased interest and focus in just how women fare in Ireland.
Currently the country is seized with the revelations that Ireland’s cervical cancer screening programme, operating since 2008, failed to pick up on several hundred cases where women should have received earlier intervention for cancer treatment. Of at least 208 cases identified to date 17 women are dead. Additionally it has emerged that even when irregularities and anomalies in the screening results were realised many of the women concerned were not alerted directly. The scandal emerged after one woman, Vicky Phelan, now terminally ill, spoke out after refusing to accept a confidentiality clause in a €2.5 million compensation offer. The affair, which is still simmering, has damaged the Government politically and has revealed issues of governance in Ireland’s Health Service Executive, as well as how the State deals with those seeking redress for officialdom’s mistakes.
Elsewhere the “Me Too” campaign has had its Irish dimension in recent months, with allegations of sexual harassment and bullying, at least one tribunal award for unfair dismissal in in a case involving alleged harassment and more and more women speaking up about inappropriate behaviour towards them by men over the years. An unedifying and lengthy rape trial in Belfast involving two Ulster and Irish international Rugby players has further focussed interest. Both were acquitted on 28 March but throughout the seven week trial there was massive media coverage and every sordid and intimate detail of the 2016 incident was aired and reported – the South’s reporting restrictions in rape cases do not apply in the North. The young woman involved was cross examined for seven days, a further ordeal in itself.
The whole process left a nasty aftertaste, with various tweets and texts between the defendants after the incident exposing a laddish and misogynistic culture that was distasteful and unseemly to say the least. Subsequent attempts at apologies by the players fell flat, with women’s groups fired up, demonstrations in a number of cities and the launch of an “I Believe Her” movement. The players’ contracts have been cancelled and so far they appear unemployable, with the Irish rugby authorities distancing themselves and deploring the players’ behaviour. If anything positive has emerged it has been to focus the attention of men on the requirement to treat women with more dignity and respect.
Assuming the referendum passes, it will be another significant milestone in the advance of women’s rights in Ireland. The Irish Times columnist Fintan O Toole summarised several years ago the progress that had been made since 1970 in putting to right legislative areas in which women were discriminated against. I touched on some of them in my April column. The list is informative and merits a visit. Repeal of the Eighth will add to it. It has been a long march.