Ireland Moves Closer to Legalizing Abortion

Recently in Ireland a body called the Irish Citizens’ Assembly took steps long feared by supporters of the right to life.

The assembly is not a regular constitutional component of the Irish government. Rather it is a body called into being by the government to make suggestions as to potential constitutional amendments for the legislature to propose for the voters to consider in referenda. A comparable assembly called a few years ago suggested a few amendments, including abolishing the upper house of the legislature, the Senate (Seanad in Irish), and lowering the age to be elected to the presidency from 35 to 21 years.

Both failed in referendum. However, one suggested amendment approved by both houses of the parliament (Oireachtas in Irish), the Seanad and the Dáil, the lower and popularly elected house, was approved in a referendum in 2015 by more than 60.5 percent of the voters. That amendment allowed same-sex “marriage” in Ireland.

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The recent assembly, called into being last fall, turned its primary attention to the question of repealing the existing eight amendment to the constitution Article 40.3.3, passed in 1983: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

No doubt the startling victory of the same-sex “marriage” cause in 2015 and the passage in 2013 of legislation allowing abortion in the case of threatened suicide by a mother-to-be gave new impetus to the pro-abortion or “choice” movement in Ireland.

(Despite being seemingly contrary to the above quoted anti-abortion amendment, a decision by the Irish Supreme Court in 1992 opposed blocking an abortion when suicide was threatened. The 2013 legislation gave formal legislative sanction to the earlier judicial decision, which had only effected a single case.)

Why are Citizens’ Assemblies used to propose constitutional amendments? Ordinarily this is done by the legislature, and then sent to the public for a referendum. The most likely answer is that many Irish politicians are hesitant about being champions of either same-sex “marriage” or abortion, but they can cover themselves if they can appear the passive followers of a purportedly disinterested body like the Citizens’ Assembly.

Admittedly some Irish politicians, especially members of the leftwing parties, like Labour and Sinn Féin and a variety of other smaller groups and independents, are ardent champions of “abortion rights” and have had substantial media encouragement and foreign support.

What is and who makes up the assembly? It is a body of 99 citizens selected by a public opinion agency ostensibly reflective of the Irish population in terms of age, sex, economic position, social status, and various other criteria with the assumption that the body is truly reflective of the nation. One wonders if a body of 99, no matter how socially scientifically selected, can accurately reflect the feelings of a national electorate?

At any rate, the assembly, after meeting weekly to hear various views on the issue, voted the weekend of April 23 and 24. There had been anticipation that the recommendation would be favorable toward some liberalization of the constitutional prohibition. But there was general surprise at how overwhelming was the support for abortion as well as the broad conditions in which it would be permitted.

By a vote of 51 to 38 the assembly called for the Eight Amendment to be replaced with one “that explicitly authorizes the Oireachtas (the parliament) to legislate to address termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn, and any rights of the pregnant woman.” In other words, rules governing abortion would be removed from the constitution and made subject to ordinary legislation.

Subsequently the assembly voted by overwhelming majorities to recommend the legislative approval of abortion in 13 different circumstances. The circumstances and the favorable votes were:

  • a real and substantial risk to the woman’s life (82-1),
  • a risk of suicide (79-4),
  • a serious risk to the physical health of the woman (76-6),
  • a risk to her mental health (74-8),
  • a serious risk to her health (77-8),
  • a risk to her physical health (66-18),
  • a risk to her mental health (63-18),
  • a risk to her health (65-18),
  • if pregnancy was a result of rape (73-9),
  • if the unborn child had a fetal abnormality likely to result in death before or shortly after birth (77-10),
  • if the abnormality was not likely to result from death (66-17),
  • for socio-economic reasons (60-23),
  • without restriction as to reasons (52-29).

Each of the ballots also indicated the gestational age at which abortion could take place. In four cases, the first, second, third, and tenth votes, majorities placed no restriction on the fetal age: where there is a risk to a woman’s life, a threat of suicide, a risk to her health, or a fetal abnormality likely to result in death before or shortly after birth.

In all the other circumstances, a majority supported restrictions up to 22 weeks. Some opponents of abortion, resigned to its being accepted in Ireland, might see the acceptance of some gestational limit as encouraging. But rather being slightly reassured by this seemingly restraining side of the abortion cause, they should be outraged at the strong majority supporting abortion for socio-economic reasons and/or any reason at all.

It has been pointed out by some observers that more detailed public opinion polling of a greater sampling of voters than the 99 members of the Citizens’ Assembly (of whom almost a dozen did not vote in most of the specific ballots mentioned above) suggests that while Irish voters would accept abortion, it would be for fewer reasons than those approved by the assembly and on stricter terms gestationally.

It is painful to view the changes in Ireland in slightly more than the three decades since overwhelming majorities rejected abortion and divorce. Some restraint on the abortion bandwagon might yet ensue because of an inability of Irish political parties to confront complex questions.

The very fact that no party, or even coalition, has anything near an absolute majority, that governance depends on major opposition groups offering tacit consent, that the incumbent prime minister (or Taoiseach) will probably soon vacate his position, and a general inability to solve what should be a less complex matter, the imposition of water rates common to most countries, might portend a delay in the achievement of the abortionists’ goals.

Observers have suggested that a “middle of the road” amendment allowing some, but scarcely all, abortions might fail. Paradoxically disappointed advocates of unrestricted abortion might allow their negative votes to be joined with those of the opponents of abortion as to enable the status quo to be maintained.

It is sad that the right to life cause in Ireland resting on such accidental factors. However, providence often works in strange ways.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is Taoiseach Enda Kenny addressing the inaugural meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly in Dublin in October. (Photo credit: Sam Boal /


  • John P. McCarthy

    John P. McCarthy is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham University. He is the author of Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978); Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish State (2006); and Twenty-first Century Ireland: A View from America (2012).

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