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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 25 New Delhi June 9, 2018

Ireland Marches towards Liberalism:Referendum on Abortion of May 25, 2018

Sunday 10 June 2018

by Gautam Sen

The Irish people have convincingly voted in a historic referendum on May 25 this year, by a 67 per cent to 33 per cent majority, in favour of restoring the right of women to abortion. Only one Irish county, Donegal, close to the border with Northern Ireland, voted ‘No’. Abortion has been illegal in the country under Sections 58 and 59 of the ‘Offences against Persons Act of 1861’. In Ireland, the right to abortion has been an emotive issue over the past five decades. However, with social change, rising consciousness on women’s rights and appreciation of the need to protect the right of individual choice co-related with health concerns, the clamour for a change or moderation in Ireland’s domestic law on abortion, was increasing.

As a sequel to another referendum on September 7, 1983, the Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s Constitution was enacted leading to the insertion of a sub-section recognising equal right to life of the unborn child with that of the pregnant woman in whose womb the child rested. As a consequence, the right to abortion of the mother had thus to be balanced with the deemed countervailing right of the unborn child in the mother’s womb. Moreover, abortion was then permitted only in circumstances when life of the pregnant woman was at risk. Notwith-standing such an enabling provision in the Irish law, Savita Hallapanavar, an Indian dentist working in Ireland‘s University Hospital at Galloway, could not be saved in 2012. This was because of failure of the Irish system to medically intervene on her repeated requests for abortion due to sceptic miscarriage and disinclination of the doctors on duty to perform the abortion within the ambit of the then existing law, even as an emergency measure.

The significance of the verdict of the latest referendum may be appreciated in the context of a general build up in the Irish milieu in favour of liberalism. The fact that Irish Premier Leo Varadkar at the individual level, and many in the ruling Fine Gael party and those in the allied Labour Party were votaries of the right to abortion, helped carry the tide in favour of abolition of the Eighth Amendment forward. Even a party like the Sinn Fein with a Catholic base and a record of extremist postures in the past, supported the revocation of the Eighth Amendment. Reinforcing this tide was the general atmosphere in a large number of European Union (EU) member-countries, for more empathetically and also scientifically dealing with this issue. In essence, the outcome of the referendum of May 25 was a victory of democratic values and for upholding the women‘s right of individual choice with dignity. As a result of the latest referendum, the religious overhang, while considering such issues of life and death, seems to have abated to an extent in a devout Roman Catholic country as Ireland, which otherwise has been a well-established democratic state.

The latest referendum can be considered a milestone in Ireland‘s march towards liberalism. A country, which has well-entrenched democratic institutions, is placed at the eighth position from the top (as per the UN ranking of 2016) in the international human development index, with a Christian population belonging to the Roman Catholic order but also tolerant of people of other religious faiths, was somehow in the warp of an ecclesiastical Christian dogma which viewed abortion as an unnatural phenomenon. It now appears that the Irish people have accepted women’s unfettered right to abortion as a matter of individual choice, till 12 weeks preceding anticipated pregnancy, and later in circumstances which may arise strictly on physiological or medical grounds beyond human control. Now, it will be interesting to see how the Dael, Ireland’s parliament, enacts legislation laying down the framework for conduct of abortion at public and private institutions under normative guidelines.

Henceforth, Ireland will also be in more accommodative company of its EU partners. The European Commission on Human Rights had been critical of Ireland‘s position on human rights post-referendum of 1983, owing to lack of clarity on the grounds for abortion. The human rights fraternity in EU countries were of the view that, even after an earlier Irish Supreme Court’s ruling and a referendum of 1992, wherein the circumstances under which abortion was deemed permissible under the ‘Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act’, for example, under risk to life, physical illness and suicidal tendencies of the mother were indicated, right to travel abroad for abortion, etc. were accepted, grey areas pertinent to appraising of the circumstances, remained. With the will of the Irish nation substantially declared through the referendum of May 25, 2018, the ambiguity has been removed. The next step is for the Dael to enact the 36th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, totally nullifying the Eighth Amendment and inter-alia specifying the unres-tricted right to abortion of the mother carrying the foetus until 12 weeks before the expected delivery, with the exception that abortion can still be performed if the mother’s life is in danger. These were the premises propagated by the pro-abortion groups in the run-up to last month’s referendum.

Ii is relevant to mention that expression of Irish public will, as achieved on May 25, 2018, would not have been obtainable without a churning at Ireland‘s societal level, and the sensitising of its people on a range of social issues. A fundamental change in society was required so that social issues were deemed as important as economic ones in the matter of enabling a dignified human life. It is noteworthy that Ireland had legalised gay marriages recently through a referendum in May 2015 and enactment of the 34th Amendment to the country’s Constitution. Premier Varadkar, incidentally, is a declared gay politician of liberal views. The latest referendum verdict has perforce to be viewed as part of a continuum towards further liberalisation of Irish society. However, this may not be easy. After the referendum, some Irish Catholic bishops have started questioning the Irish people’s ability to think critically. They have derisively termed the referendum result as a license for euthanasia, inter alia suggesting that those who voted in favour of abortion rights of women, should confess their ‘sin’ before ‘Lord God Almighty’ in the church.

Ireland is in ferment. After the feverish campaign for and against the repealing of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution and also in the aftermath of its result, a move is afoot for liberalising the ‘North’, that is, Northern Ireland, an anachronous geo-political entity tagged to Britain. The slogan ‘North is Next’, though not renting the air, can be felt in the milieu there and psyche of the people on both sides of the Ireland and Northern Ireland border. Premier Varadkar has mentioned that 3000 to 4000 Irish women have been travelling annually to Britain, including Northern Ireland, to avail of abortion services. This phenomenon is expected to decline with the institution of abortion taking on a new dimension in Ireland. The socio-political milieu on both sides of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border, are also expected to gradually change progressively.

The author is a former senior Civil Service officer of the Government of India and presently serving as Adviser to Government of Arunachal Pradesh.

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