A referendum on abortion is likely to lead to minimum change

During a visit to DCU in 2007, Enda Kenny, as leader of the opposition party, declared his opposition to same-sex marriage. In the space of less than eight years, his position evolved into one which saw him, as leader of the Fine Gael party and Taoiseach, not only hold a referendum on the issue but also campaign for a Yes vote.

The positive result of the referendum last May, along with the widespread reception and celebration that followed, is a testament to how much individuals and societies can transform their positions on what were once seen as sensitive political issues, in a relatively small space of time.

A more cynical view of politicians to this change is that they were simply catching up with public opinion. When poll after poll indicates overwhelming support for reform or change, only unwise politicians would ignore it.

If Enda Kenny is one thing above all else, he is the paragon of pragmatism in Irish politics. This is often eschewed as the antithesis of the conviction politician, but in a political landscape that is grappled by a culture of clientelism alongside a streak of personal careerism, this shouldn’t be surprising.

It is through this prism that we should perhaps view Taoiseach Kenny’s recent comments that he would not commit to holding a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment in the Irish constitution without considering what to replace it with.

A critical look at the reasoning behind the Taoiseach’s position would have to be contrasted with the damaging split that the Fine Gael parliamentary party endured during the legislative programme that saw the passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill into law. It would be difficult to argue that the same level of pro-life resistance exists in the parliamentary party today, considering the most ideologically fervent T.D’s left the party during the debacle.

Also, it would be hard to argue that this is a political gambit by the Taoiseach to try to win back the pro-life constituency heading towards a general election.

This is highly improbable considering the opprobrium of a number of pro-life groups towards Fine Gael at the passing of the PLDP Bill, and also in the context that Fianna Fail is effectively courting this constituency by ruling out repealing the 8th amendment.

The more likely motivation is simply that the Taoiseach is attempting to kick this issue to touch. His comments indicate a recognition that reform is necessary, but when he states that there needs to be something to replace the amendment, he is narrowing the debate on what change should occur.

This is the favourite approach of every Irish politician. This mainly being small, slow and incremental change classically understood as the Irish solution to the Irish problem.

There is no doubt that there will be a referendum on the issue in the lifetime of the next parliament. The tipping point of public support in favour of change is rapidly being reached. The makeup of the next Dáil will at the very least see a significantly stronger opposition, and if many left leaning and liberal candidates win seats there will be a sizeable number of parliamentarians who are in favour of repeal. The pragmatic politician will diffuse not only the opposition, but give succour to public opinion by holding a referendum.

However, this isn’t necessarily good news for those who position themselves as pro-choice. The reason being that an incremental approach will see only the bare minimum of change affected on this issue. In all likelihood, it will be focused on allowing abortion in the case of fatal-foetal abnormalities and perhaps in the case of rape and incest – but that will be as far as any reform will be stretched.

While this will make an important difference to women who are affected on those grounds, the societal shaming and judgement inherent in the 8th amendment will not be removed. True bodily autonomy and reproductive rights will not be granted unless women are constitutionally trusted with choice.

The debate is already being framed and narrowed. Therefore, it is incumbent upon pro-choice politicians, activists and groups to recognise that the debate on holding a referendum has been won and to move onto ensuring that it is a fulsome question that is asked on the ballot paper.

This, however, should not be limited to the politicians. The greatest lesson from the progress and passage of the same-sex marriage referendum is that civic society must lead in the debate and the campaign. The Taoiseach is narrowing the debate for a more harmonised political atmosphere, while ignoring the effect this has on women.

It would be a momentous change if we stand up in support of our female citizens, and cry havoc to a political system and culture that aims to continue to legally shackle, morally judge and socially shame them into silence and obedience.

Sean Cassidy

Image Credit:Richard Whelan

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