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Ireland Commits to Hold Abortion Referendum by End of May

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The Irish government on Monday formally committed to hold a historic referendum on abortion, confirming that a vote will be held by the end of May.

The referendum on whether to repeal a 35-year-old constitutional ban on abortion will test how far attitudes have shifted in a country that was once a bastion of Roman Catholic conservatism.

Speaking at a news conference after a special cabinet meeting on the issue, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also confirmed that the minister of health is preparing legislation to allow unrestricted access to abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and later in cases of rape, incest or fatal abnormality. That legislation, which echoes recommendations delivered by an all-party parliamentary committee last month, will be put before Parliament if the country votes to repeal the constitutional ban.

Mr. Varadkar said that over 2,000 Irish women and girls were taking abortion pills each year without proper medical supervision, and that this would inevitably lead to medical tragedies.

“I don’t think we can persist with a situation where women in crisis are risking their lives for the use of unregulated medicines,” he said, “and I don’t believe the Constitution is the place for making absolute statements about medical, moral and legal issues.”

After hearing legal advice from the country’s attorney general, Mr. Varadkar and his cabinet decided to proceed with a referendum to repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, known as the Eighth Amendment, which gives an unborn fetus a right to life equal to that of its mother. In practice, Irish legal authorities have interpreted this as a ban on abortion in almost all circumstances.

The referendum measure, if passed by a majority of voters, would replace that article with a new clause stating that Parliament has the power to make laws regulating abortion. Because Irish laws can be passed only by acts of Parliament, Mr. Varadkar has promised to tell voters what kind of abortion bill is proposed before a referendum is held on repealing the constitutional ban.

For the referendum to proceed, the cabinet’s decision must be approved by both houses of Ireland’s Parliament. The main political parties have all said that lawmakers in both houses will be free to vote according to their conscience rather than on party lines.

Mr. Varadkar said that his cabinet’s decision to hold a referendum was unanimous, but that there was some disagreement over the specifics of any abortion legislation if the referendum passes. His deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, is believed to be one of several party colleagues who are unhappy with the proposal to allow unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Mr. Varadkar’s party, the center-right Fine Gael, does not have a majority in Parliament; it depends on five independent lawmakers and a pact with its main rival, the socially more conservative Fianna Fail. A poll published by The Irish Times on Friday showed that a majority of lawmakers in both houses support repealing the constitutional ban. In the lower house, or Dail, 82 lawmakers said they would vote yes, and 40 no, with 36 undeclared. In the upper house, the Senate, 31 said they supported removing the ban, 11 oppose it and 17 are undeclared.

Early public opinion polls suggest that a majority of Irish voters would favor removing the constitutional ban in a referendum. A poll published in The Sunday Business Post this weekend showed 60 percent support for repeal, though support for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks was weaker, at 51 percent.

In view of this, and the continuing opposition to abortion within the larger conservative parties, it is not certain that a bill allowing unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks would be approved by Parliament.

Unrestricted abortion has always been illegal in modern Ireland, although terminations were sometimes carried out in hospitals when considered necessary to save the mother’s life. In 1981, however, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, a lay group backed by the Roman Catholic Church, began lobbying for a constitutional amendment that would prevent terminations on any grounds.

A 1983 referendum on such an amendment passed with 67 percent of the vote, despite warnings from some constitutional and medical experts that the resulting ban would create difficult legal and medical situations.

One such affair — known as “The X Case” — emerged in 1992, when the then-attorney general secured a court order to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim, identified only as “X,” from leaving the country to obtain an abortion in England, the most common destination for Irish women seeking terminations. Ireland’s Supreme Court overturned the decision, reinterpreting the constitutional ban as allowing terminations in cases where pregnancy threatened a woman’s life. The teenager had expressed a wish to kill herself rather than carry the baby to term.

Anti-abortion campaigners went on to lobby for two further referendums to exclude a suicide risk as a reason to allow abortion, but — in a sign of changing attitudes — were defeated both times.

Successive Irish governments, seemingly unwilling to alienate sections of their supporters or to anger the church and the anti-abortion lobby, nonetheless ignored a Supreme Court recommendation after the X Case that laws be passed to explicitly legalize abortions in cases where the mother’s life was at risk.

Two decades later, a woman’s death in a public hospital created a new groundswell of support for change. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian-born dentist, died in University Hospital Galway seven days after being admitted while miscarrying. She was 17 weeks into her pregnancy.

Soon after her admission, when it was clear that the fetus could not survive, Ms. Halappanavar requested a termination but was denied one. She later died of sepsis, and an inquiry ruled that legal uncertainty about the law on abortion had contributed to her death.

The following year, in direct response to her death, Parliament passed a law explicitly legalizing abortion in such cases, and pressure continued to grow for repeal of the constitutional ban.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: Ireland Commits to Holding Abortion Referendum. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Source: NYT > World

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