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Opinion, Comment & Reviews
Ireland and abortion

Irish Green Paper on Abortion published 10/9/99
By Maxine Lattimer

On Friday 10th September 1999 the Irish government published a long awaited green paper on abortion, which could lead to yet another referndum. The launch was deliberately low-key and marks the latest stage in a long-running saga over the law that prohibits abortion. Both sides welcomed the discussion document but while the anti-abortion movement backed calls for a fresh early vote, their pro-choice rivals and opposition politicians were holding out for the abortion question to be resolved through parliamentary action on legislation, rather than a referendum. Although Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his Cabinet insisted they would fulfil a pledge to stage another poll, there was no clear indication that it would go ahead before the next scheduled Irish general election in 2002.

The legislation dates back to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and a 'pro-life' clause (40.3.3) which was formally put into the written Irish constitution in 1983 after a referendum campaign bitterly fought out between anti-abortion groups and the pro-choice lobby. However, the position was thrown into confusion six years ago following the X case and an Irish Supreme Court judgement which effectively permitted abortion where the life of the pregnant woman is considered to be at risk (including from suicide). Because of doubts thrown up by the X case, the constitution was subsequently amended again to guarantee the right to travel and to information about overseas abortion services to all citizens. Since then, anti abortion activists have stepped up pressure for a fresh plebiscite to confirm the abortion ban, with a number of independent members of parliament threatening to withdraw their vital support for the minority coalition government of Bertie Ahern in the absence of a referendum pledge. The report points out that, according to latest figures (regarded as conservative by most observers) nearly 6,000 Irish women chose to go to Britain for abortions last year. And since the passing of 1967 Abortion Act it is estimated that at least 95,000 women giving addresses in the Irish Republic have had abortions in England.

The green paper stops short of recommending the text for any referendum proposal on the issue, but a government spokesman confirmed: "There will be another abortion referendum, no matter what happens.'' Some opposition politicians have made it clear that they feel the issue should be resolved through legislation in parliament, rather than another potentially divisive nationwide poll. Irish Labour Party leader Ruairi Quinn said: "The constitution is not the appropriate place to try to deal with a complex medical and social issue like abortion.'' The government said it hoped discussion prompted by their paper would not be characterised by the bitter and polarised debate which marked the previous referendums.'' Health Minister Brian Cowen said: "We hope the green paper will provoke an intelligent public discussion. This is not being naive. There is no reason whatever for an acrimonious debate. We need to find a structured forum of discussion to enable people to deal with this rationally and intelligently. We want all sides to come to a clearer understanding of each side's point of view. Our responsibility is to conduct a debate that will throw our more light than heat.''

A pro-choice spokeswoman said: "It seems a very fair paper. From our perspective it envisages possible legislation to allow abortion to be performed in certain cases without constitutional amendment.'' Leading anti-abortionist William Binchy said of the green paper: "It is fair to say it does not come down for or against. But our option of a referendum has a central position. A reasonable person (!) would come to the opinion that the view we are putting forward is the only solution to the problem of abortion.''

The full text of the Green Paper is available online on The Irish Times website at www.ireland.com

The document is highly-detailed, 172-pages long, with the following contents:

Introduction; Terms of Reference;

Chapter 1: Pregnancy and Maternal Health

Chapter 2: The Legal Context

Chapter 3: The State's Obligations under International and EU Law

Chapter 4: Other Grounds for Abortion, set in an International Context

Chapter 5: The Submissions to the Interdepartmental Working Group

Chapter 6: The Social Context

Chapter 7: Possible Constitutional and Legislative Approaches

Glossary of Medical Terms

Appendix 1: Extracts from documents referred to in Terms of Reference

Appendix 2: Statistics on Irish women who have had abortions in England and Wales

Appendix 3: The Law Relating to Abortion in Selected other Jurisdictions

Appendix 4: Submissions Received

Appendix 5: Extract from Report of the Constitution Review Group

The paper does not make any recommendations but it does outline five possible approaches for addressing the issue of abortion generally. These are:

1.. introduce an absolute ban on abortion
2.. redraft the constitutional provisions to restrict the application of the X case decision
3.. amend Article 40.3.3 so as to legalise abortion in constitutionally defined circumstances
4.. regulate by legislation the application of Article 40.3.3.

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