Advance on abortion law reform and the treatment of women generally is now inevitable in the Republic. But will it go the whole way?

For readers catching up, the Times (£) has a good pull together on the prospects of seismic change to the Republic’s abortion law.

In a series of votes over the weekend, the citizens’ assembly, set up to consider the issue, recommended that abortion should be available up to 12 weeks after conception “with no restriction as to reason”. The vote for change was overwhelming, by 52 to 29.

The Irish Times passes a qualified verdict

Despite the recommendation from the ( citizen’s ) assembly for a complete liberalisation of the law of abortion, allowing for abortion on request, the thinking of many people in both Government and the Oireachtas generally is that a more limited liberalisation of the law is both preferable and more likely to be endorsed by the electorate.

Privately, many senior political figures are sceptical that a referendum to enable the introduction of abortion on request would pass in a referendum, despite the vote at the Citizens’ Assembly.

In another remarkable development there are real doubts as to whether Dublin’s main new  300m euro maternity hospital should be handed over to the management of a Catholic Order  the Sisters of Charity for fear they would deny appropriate  treatment to women. The former chief executive Peter Boylan now wants to reverse the government’s decision and the board is  divided, with his own sister in law against him and wanting to dismiss him from the board . I suppose he has to answer the question: could the maternity hospital  staffed  by other than the Sisters of Charity?

The Catholic bishop who made these comments to the Sunday Times now says they were  “general in nature” about the supremacy of canon law over state law.

The healthcare organisation bearing the name Catholic, while offering care to all who need it, has a special responsibility… to Catholic teachings about the value of human life and the dignity and the ultimate destiny of the human person,”

Fintan O’Toole declares  

If we don’t own our own hospitals, we don’t own our own bodies. And if we don’t take ownership of our own State we will always be hearing those words: This is not a decision for you.

.. and gives this example  from the bed next to his wife’s.

She had just given birth to her fifth child. She, too, did not want any more children. She wanted, as she put it, “to have my tubes burnt”. The curtains were drawn around her bed but everyone in the ward could hear the conversation with the doctor to whom she put this request.

The doctor, a woman, was professional and sympathetic. But she was also emphatic: “This is not a decision for you and it is not a decision for me. It is a decision for the ethics committee of the hospital. If you wish to make a request, your file will be sent to the ethics committee. They will read your file and on the basis of the file they will decide whether or not you can have a tubal ligation. But I must warn you that even if they rule in your favour, the procedure will not be covered by your medical card. It will be separately means-tested.”

Colleen Hennessy in the links the two stories

 The announcement by the Department of Health right before the Citizens’ Assembly shares its final recommendations on the eighth amendment this weekend shows that the government does not think that the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations regarding abortion legalisation is relevant to the ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital.

This does not bode well for the Coalition to Repeal the Eight Amendment.

I fear for the campaign to repeal the Eighth because although access to abortion services is integral to gender equality in healthcare, I fear it won’t be enough to address the incestuous entanglement between Ireland’s public policy and State-funded services and the Catholic Church.

This week’s announcement in the context of the Citizens’ Assembly, the confirmed mass grave at a Magdalene laundry in Tuam, and the recent Census results shows the continued normalisation of a religious order “owning” a tax-payer funded social service.

I believe it will take legal challenges on the grounds of gender discrimination and inequality under Irish law to fully remove the Catholic Church from publicly-funded schools and other services.

The Sunday Times story on the citizen’s assembly verdict on abortion reform.

Ireland is likely to hold a referendum to liberalise abortion after a citizens’ assembly voted overwhelmingly for reform.

If Irish people opted for reform, it would mean changing the Republic’s constitution to overhaul its abortion laws, which are among the most restrictive in Europe.

Abortion is available in Ireland only when there is a proven risk to the woman’s life, including through suicide. Many pregnant women travel to Britain or have an illegal termination with pills bought online.

In a series of votes over the weekend, the citizens’ assembly, set up to consider the issue, recommended that abortion should be available up to 12 weeks after conception “with no restriction as to reason”. The vote for change was overwhelming, by 52 to 29.

The assembly of 33 representatives chosen by political parties, 66 citizens chosen randomly and a chairwoman was set up last year by Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, to consider constitutional issues. A 22-week gestational limit, which would be more in line with British law, was narrowly defeated, by 25 citizens to 23. Four people voted for no restriction whatever.

In a report to the Irish parliament due before the end of June, Ms Justice Laffoy, the forum’s chairwoman, is expected to advise that any new abortion law should consider the rights of the woman and not only the rights of the foetus.

Her report will be considered by a special Irish parliamentary committee that will put proposals before parliament. The parliament will then be able to vote on calling a referendum, the only means by which the Irish constitution can be changed.

Two senior Irish politicians said that abortion reform should be dealt with within the next year. Frances Fitzgerald, deputy prime minister and justice minister, said that abortion was “best dealt with between a woman and her doctors, but of course you also have to have an appropriate legislative basis”. She added: “My own thinking is that there should be a referendum next year.”

Paschal Donohoe, the public expenditure minister, also urged parliament to act by next year amid fears that the minority government could collapse. The majority of Irish politicians previously had only considered making abortion available in limited circumstances, such as rape or where the child is found to have no chance of surviving.

Abortion laws have remained almost unassailable since 1983, when the eighth amendment to the constitution was approved. It was added amid fears that the law could be liberalised if a woman took a case to the Supreme Court. Since its introduction, the amendment has been linked with a series of scandals. They include an attempt by the Irish attorney-general to stop a rape victim travelling to Britain to terminate a pregnancy in 1990.

In 2012 Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, died from sepsis after she was denied a termination.

In 2014 Ms Y, an asylum seeker who had been raped, went on hunger strike after she was refused an abortion.

United Nations and European Court of Human Rights rulings have called for the immediate repeal of the eighth amendment on human rights grounds.

Why is this happening now? 

The decision of Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, to establish a citizens’ assembly to consider abortion reform was widely seen as a delaying tactic. However, its vote to change the constitution and liberalise the law puts the government under unprecendented pressure for change.

What is the reaction in Ireland? 
The citizens’ assembly vote has caused political chaos. No politician, or even pro-choice campaigner, had envisioned that the recommended change would be so liberal.

What chance is there of change?
There will almost certainly be a referendum, probably early next year. Polls suggest that the result will be pro-choice.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London