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Irish 'Pro-Life Amendment'

What came to be known in Ireland as the 'Pro-Life Amendment' is an anti-abortion section added into the Irish Constitution in a national referendum of Irish voters held in 1983.

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The Origins

The Amendment was urged by an anti-abortion campaign, called the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, (PLAC) under leaders such as Professor William Binchy[?], Professor John Bonnar and including such supporters as Senator Des Hannifin[?], argued that the Irish Constitution could be interpreted by the Irish Supreme Court[?] as granting a right to abortion, as happened in the United States in the 'Roe V Wade' court case in the 1970s. (Its fears were generated by the 'McGee case', where the Irish courts found that there was an implicit constitutional right to contraception.) Prior to the 1981 general election, they lobbied all the major Irish political parties at the time (Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Irish Labour Party[?] to urge the introduction of a Bill to allow the amendment to the constitution to prevent the Irish Supreme Court so interpreting the constitution as giving a right to abortion.

The leaders of Fianna Fáil (Charles J. Haughey) and Fine Gael (Garret FitzGerald) both confirmed that if they became taoiseach (prime minister) they would introduce such a Bill. The leader of the Labour Party refused. Both leaders in the following eighteen months did become taoiseach but it was not until late 1982, just before the collapse of Haughey's minority government, that a proposed wording for the amendment was produced. FitzGerald and Fine Gael initially supported the wording, but when in government, FitzGerald was advised by his Attorney-General, Peter Sutherland[?], that the wording as proposed was dangerously flawed. FitzGerald produced a different, more narrow based wording. Whereas the version prepared by the outgoing Haughey government was 'positive' (ie, it asserted a right that the State would 'vindicate' by its actions), FitzGerald's version was 'negative' (ie, merely asserting that the courts could not interpret the constitution as facilitating abortion, while not preventing parliament from introducing abortion via legislation). Though FitzGerald's version was closer to the version originally demanded by PLAC, a majority in Dáil Éireann (consisting of the opposition plus some government members) voted it down, in preference for the original wording.

A subsequent referendum on the orginal wording took place in 1983. It was supported by PLAC, Fianna Fáil, some members of Fine Gael, the Roman Catholic hierarchy and some protestant groups, and opposed by various groups under the umbrella name of the Anti-Amendment Campaign (AAC), including Labour senator (and future President of Ireland) Mary Robinson, women's rights campaigners, FitzGerald, his ministers and most of his party, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin the Workers Party[?] and most though not all protestant churches. The electorate voted overwhelmingly to add the amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann.

The Contents of the Amendment

The amendment contained three assertions:

  • That it would protect and vindicate the right to life of what the amendment terms the 'unborn';
  • That the 'unborns right to life was equal to its mother;
  • That such this right to life would be defended to greatest degree 'practicable'.

The 'X Case'

However the Amendment ran into seriously difficulty in the early 1990s when the Irish Supreme Court was forced to deal with a crisis over the pregnancy of a fourteen year old statutory rape victim. An earlier High Court judgment, in vindicating the rights to life, had prevented the girl from getting an abortion abroad. This judgment was overturned by the Supreme Court in what came to be known as the 'X Case'. She was given the freedom to travel to receive an abortion abroad, though in reality she had in the meantime miscarried. A further series of referenda took place to adapt and clarify the 'Pro-Life Amendment'; among those carried were a constitutional 'right to travel' abroad for any procedure legal in another European state, and a 'right of information' as to where abortions are legal.

Other proposed amendments, which were put to the electorate by various governments to 'roll back' (reverse) the 'X Case' judgment and restrict a woman's right to travel abroad for an abortion, were rejected by the electorate in a series of referenda. The 'Pro-Life Campaign', a successor to PLAC, accused the Supreme Court of mis-interpreting both the law and the will of the people. The Government and former Attorney-General Peter Sutherland dismissed such claims, arguing that, as they had claimed in 1983, the 'Pro-Life Amendment' was so poorly worded and ambiguous that it could facilitate either pro- or heavily anti-abortion interpretations in different circumstances.

The Status Today

According to Irish opinion polls, the majority of the electorate are opposed to 'abortion on demand'. However there is less support for a blanket ban on all abortions in all circumstances. Having experienced a constant flow of referenda on the issue in the 1990s, few people expect the issue to be revisited in the immediate future, meaning that Irish law currently contains an expression of a belief that the 'unborn' has a 'right to life' , subject to the qualifications imposed in referenda asserting the right of pregnant women to information on abortion and the right to travel, and the legal complexities of the 'X Case' (and a subsequent case, known as the 'C Case'.) The 'Pro-Life Campaign' continues to campaign for another amendment to, in its view, return the law to what they said it meant in 1983. Their campaign, however, has little support among the political parties, the smaller of whom have come out in favour of the introduction of limited abortion.

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