Another historic referendum may be on the way after the Citizens’ Assembly voted to recommend loosening Ireland’s restrictions on abortion. However, the 99-member group appointed by the Government also rejected the idea of completely repealing the Constitution’s 8th Amendment.
After listening to weeks of presentations from experts and campaigners, the Assembly was tasked last weekend with putting forward a blueprint of what Ireland’s abortion laws should look like in the modern era. By an overwhelming margin of 87%, the members chose not to support the status quo of abortion only being legal when a pregnancy becomes life-threatening.
Instead, the Citizen’s Assembly will recommend to government that the controversial Eighth Amendment be replaced by a much more liberal article which would allow for abortions in a wider range of circumstances.
Each position taken by the Citizen’s Assembly was voted on and approved by a majority of its membership. The democratic consensus of members was that the Constitution should continue to regulate the issue of abortion in some form, but that TDs and Senators should have more power and responsibility to shape the country’s laws on the issue.
The Assembly was also given the chance to set out in some detail what they thought Ireland’s abortion laws should allow. The Assembly recommended that abortion should be legally accessible:
- Up to 12 weeks
- On request without needing to provide a reason
- Up to 22 weeks
- Where pregnancy is the result of rape
- For socio-economic reasons
- In the case of foetal diagnosis of serious disability
- In the case of risk to health (physical or mental)
- After 22 weeks
- In the case of diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormaility
- Serious risk to health
- Risk to life
What happens now?
The Citizens’ Assembly was set up by the Government to examine controversial issues such as abortion and report back with recommendations. The Chair of the Assembly, Justice Mary Laffoy will present a report on the members’ decisions to the Dáil and Seanad at the end of June.
After that, it will be up to the politicians to decide whether they want to support the Assembly’s recommendations. However whatever they decide, there can be no change to Ireland’s abortion laws without a referendum.
It therefore looks increasingly likely that the public will be asked to vote on replacing the anti-abortion 8th Amendment – but it’s unclear whether the government’s proposed replacement will be as liberal as the Citizens’ Assembly’s.
How will the politicians react?
Of the major groups in the Dáil, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Solidarity-PBP and the other left-wing parties are broadly in favour of more liberal abortion laws. Notably, most of these parties were campaigning to remove the 8th Amendment entirely and bring in only a portion of the wide-ranging reasons for termination the Assembly has recommended. How far these parties go in supporting Judge Laffoy’s report will be an important indicator of the mood of the Dáil.
Among the large right-wing parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, views on abortion are more mixed. Fianna Fáil operates a free vote on issues like this, so it’s unclear whether the party will have a coherent line or simply leave it up to each of its deputies and senators to decide for themselves. Fine Gael and its Independent allies in government also have a wide range of views within their memberships. As the government of the day, their reaction to the recommendations will be among the most important in terms of whether they are ultimately accepted, rejected or modified.
One thing is clear: another abortion referendum is now extremely likely. But the question of what it will actually aim to change is still very much up in the air.