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Ireland’s Big Choice

Niall Carson/AP Images
Reproductive rights activists, dressed as Handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, outside the Irish parliament before deliberation about the constitutional ban on abortion, September 18, 2017

Ireland has had a tendency of late to surprise itself, and occasionally the world, as it dispenses with the vestiges of its theocratic past. The country where, just over twenty years ago, homosexuality was still criminal became the first to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015. Shortly after, Ireland passed one of the most progressive transgender recognition laws in Europe. Previously, and within a generation, bans on contraception and on divorce were lifted.

Ireland’s leap into a new progressive era seemed to be solidified earlier this year with the appointment of the thirty-eight-year-old, half-Indian, openly gay Leo Varadkar as the country’s Taoiseach, or prime minister. Varadkar’s government is now compelled to take on the final remnant of Ireland’s Catholic past: the constitutional ban on abortion. But on this thorniest of issues, the only surprise so far is how enduring the political resistance to change continues to be.

This week sees the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which confers an equal right to life on an unborn fetus as the mother carrying it, effectively banning abortion in nearly every circumstance. The world will get a vivid reminder of what this constitutional ban has meant for Irish women later this month, when vigils will be held around the country to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar, a thirty-one-year-old dentist who died of septicemia in an Irish hospital after being denied a termination for the fetus she was already miscarrying. Thanks in part to Halappanavar’s untimely death, an all-party government committee is currently working on the wording of a referendum scheduled for next year to repeal or perhaps replace the amendment.

Part of the committee’s work is to consider proposals by a Citizens’ Assembly convened by the previous Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in response to a 2016 ruling by the UN Human Rights Committee that Ireland’s abortion ban violates human rights. The assembly, which also examines other issues of national importance such as climate change, voted decisively in April to legalize abortion in a wide variety of circumstances. Shortly after the vote, Varadkar acknowledged that Irish women had not yet achieved full equality and made a commitment to holding the referendum: the stars seemed to be aligning for Ireland to finally enact progressive and socially just abortion legislation. But efforts are already underway to undermine the assembly’s work and push for the most minimal of measures that will do little to improve conditions for Irish women. Varadkar’s recent indecisive utterances suggest that he, too, would like to water down the reforms.

Just last month, not long after revealing his personal reservations about abortion in an interview with The New York Times, Varadkar told a policy forum that he wasn’t sure the general public was ready to go along with the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations. A short while later, he delved further into the realms of uncertainty, stating that he wasn’t sure whether he would be personally campaigning in favor of repeal/replace and would have to wait to see how the referendum was worded. Just a day after this ambiguous declaration, several of his cabinet ministers told The Irish Times that the Assembly’s recommendations will not pass “party, Dáil [parliament] or country” and will have to be significantly amended.

So it would seem that even as the all-party government committee is just getting down to work and even before the general public gets to cast its vote, the ruling conservative party, Fine Gael, has already decided that there will be no great liberalizing of abortion laws in Ireland. If this is indeed how it plays out, aside from the implications for women’s health, it will mean that Varadkar’s party will have disregarded a meticulous exercise in deliberative democracy that it put in place (at considerable cost to the taxpayer), simply because it wasn’t satisfied with the results or because those results were not politically expedient.

In truth, no one on any side of the debate here expected the Citizens’ Assembly to vote as liberally as it did, including some of those who took part. The assembly had in total ninety-nine members, who were carefully selected by a polling company to represent all sectors of Irish society and did not belong to any advocacy groups or campaigns. I spoke to two of them, David Keogh, a truck driver in his forties, and John Long, a technician in his fifties, who both said their views and understanding of abortion and women’s health evolved substantially in the course of the “exhaustive” process.  

Long told me he went into the proceedings holding what he calls “fairly typical” Irish views on abortion—namely, that it should be legal in restrictive circumstances such as in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormalities, or where a woman’s health is at risk. (Polls consistently show that a significant majority of Irish people, around 75 percent, hold this view, with a much smaller percentage supporting abortion on request). But five weekends of assembly meetings later, after being exposed to eighty hours of expert testimony from doctors, lawyers, and hearing from an equal distribution of pro-life and pro-choice advocacy groups, he voted yes, down the line, on all thirteen ballot measures to legalize abortion, as did a majority of his fellow members.

“You could feel the shift happening as the weeks went by,” he told me. “It just became clear that Ireland wasn’t following best practices for women’s health. We’re so far off the track with that.”

Of course, the average Irish person is not going to study the issue with anything like the intensity that the assembly members had to, if they study it at all. And without that kind of exposure or understanding, they may not automatically vote in line with the assembly’s recommendations. But as Ailbhe Smyth, the convener of the Repeal the Eighth campaign, told me, the results are nonetheless indicative of a substantial shift in public opinion. “For years, polls have demonstrated a consistent demand for change, confirmed now by the Citizens’ Assembly,” she said. “The government would be wise to listen when such a deep shift occurs.”

The government might also be wise to stop treating abortion as an abstract moral conundrum and start framing the issue instead as a women’s health matter, an approach urged by Rhona Mahony, the National Maternity Hospital Master. Mahony complained recently that doctors were being forced to play “medical roulette” and that allowing terminations only when there is substantial risk to the life of the mother (as is the current law in Ireland) leaves doctors in the uncomfortable position of having to “wait until a woman is sick enough before she qualifies” for the procedure.

“We can’t keep sending people to England pretending it doesn’t happen,” Mahony added. But that seems to be exactly what Varadkar’s government is content to do.

To understand the politics of abortion in Ireland, one must look at the X case. I was in my teens in 1992 when Miss X, another teenager, was prevented from traveling to England with her parents to have an abortion after being raped by a neighbor. The Supreme Court ultimately intervened and allowed her to travel for the termination on the grounds that the fourteen-year-old Miss X was suicidal. In response to this ruling, the Irish government did not seek to liberalize the laws to prevent such a scandal from reoccurring. Instead, it put three referendums to the public. The first asked to remove suicide as grounds for abortion (in other words, the government sought to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision.) The second asked that women should have the right to travel outside the state for an abortion, and the third that information about abortion should be legally available to women in the state. Even twenty-five years ago, the Irish people proved to be ahead of the government on this issue when they voted down the suicide proposal by a majority of two to one, and voted yes on the rights to travel and to information.

But the stage was set for how the abortion issue would be handled in Ireland to this day. Women with health and means can have abortions (as thousands do every year); they just have to have them overseas at considerable expense and inconvenience. But women who can’t come up with the cost of the airfare, women in abusive relationships who can’t disappear for a couple of days, or women who are too sick to get on a plane, are left to suffer at home. As the decades wear on, it’s becoming a harder sell for the politicians who are enabling this reality to continue to use their “personal reservations” about abortion as an excuse not to enact effective legislation. But that is what successive governments have done, and now it seems that Leo Varadkar is intent on doing much the same.