Ireland’s electorate will hit the polling booths tomorrow to vote on granting policy makers the ability to legalise abortion in certain cases.
The wording of the referendum has been finalised and voters are free to cast a Yes or No vote on whether “provision may be made by law for the regulation of the termination of pregnancies”.
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With this in mind, Verdict has looked into how Ireland’s current abortion public opinion compares to similar views in other Catholic-majority counties in Europe and Latin America.
Ireland public opinion and abortion law
Abortion was first banned in Ireland as far back as 1861 under the Offences Against the Person Act that survived after Irish Independence.
In 1983, the first referendum was posed to the Irish public that led to the successful eighth amendment, which theoretically viewed the life of the woman and the foetus as equal.
On this occasion 66.9% of the electorate voted in favour, essentially saying that the unborn baby right to life is to be secured unless it directly risks the life of the mother.
Since then, there have been a few more attempts to change the current law. In 1992, the Irish courts initially prevented a 14-year-old suicidal rape victim from travelling to England to terminate her pregnancy known as the X case, which gathered significant media attention and prompted protests in Ireland, New York and London and was later repealed by Ireland’s Supreme Court.
An Ipsos MRBI poll from 2013 indicated that 71% of people surveyed supported legalisation for abortion for the X case, with 85% suggesting that abortion should be allowed in certain circumstances.
The Irish Government passed two of three amendments to the constitution. The Thirteenth amendment said the abortion ban would not limit freedom of travel to countries where the practice is legal.
The Fourteenth amendment allowed Irish citizens to learn more about abortion services in other countries. And the Twelfth amendment, which was rejected, would have deemed the possibility of suicide not sufficient to justify granting an abortion.
A referendum in 2002 to allow abortion in suicide cases was marginally rejected by the voters, with 50.42% of voters casting a ‘No’ vote.
The Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland reviewed the abortion law again in 2017, declaring that 64% of its members voted for ‘unrestricted access to abortion’.
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In March 2018, Irish Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy signed an agreement to hold the latest referendum, after the Supreme Court judged that state protections for fetuses do not cover anything more than the right to life.
An opinion poll from Sky Data this week showed that 47% of Irish voters currently support legalising abortion for women up to 12 weeks pregnant, while 36% opposed the proposal, 11% answered they were unsure, and 6% preferred not to say.
Associate law professor at Trinity College Dublin Oran Doyle told Verdict:
The Government has promised to introduce new legislation that would allow for abortions in Ireland in far more circumstances. However, until this legislation is enacted, the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act 2013 will remain in force.
It is unlikely that a ‘yes’ decision would be overturned later.
Younger people are much more likely to support a ‘yes’ vote and their views will become more dominant in the electorate as time passes.
However, there is a real question over whether the government will secure support in the parliament for its proposed legislation, even if there is a Yes vote in the referendum. But if there is a ‘yes’ vote, this is where the political action will be for the next six to 12 months.
Abortion in other Catholic-majority countries
Current statistics found that Ireland’s population is 78.3% Roman Catholic.
How does public opinion on abortion compare in other countries with high Catholic populations, and is religious belief really the main factor in determining how a nation perceives abortion rights?
Malta continues to be the only European Union Member State to legally ban the practice outright. Article 241 of Malta’s criminal code states:
Whosoever, by any food, drink, medicine, or by violence, or by any other means whatsoever, shall cause the miscarriage of any woman with child, whether the woman be consenting or not, shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term from 18 months to three years.
The same penalties apply for those who attempt to help any woman to abort her child under subsection.
In 2005, European Commissioner for Health Tonio Borg, serving as Malta’s Minister of Justice and Home Affairs at the time, attempted to enshrine an outright ban on abortion in the constitution, which stalled due to the non-position on the issue by the opposition Labour Party.
A nation with a 98% Catholic population, the Maltese public opinion on abortion still remains a taboo issue. Asked whether women should be able to terminate their pregnancy in the first 12 weeks in special circumstances, 83% of Maltese surveyed said No.
This figure rose to 95% for any reason before 12 weeks and 97% disagreed with an unrestricted abortion after any length of time.
On the issue of saving the woman’s life, 46% of those surveyed said Yes compared to 27% who disagreed, and 27% who said they were undecided.
The Dominican Republic is one example of highly restrictive abortion rights. The South American country, home to 95% Catholic population, is one of few to have an outright ban on abortion, with no exception of saving the mother’s life.
In 2009, the Dominican Government codified an outright abortion ban in a constitutional amendment that declared the right to life as ‘inviolable from conception until death’, approved by Congress in a majority vote of 128 in favour to 34 against.
In October 2012, the government incorporated Article 90 of the Penal Code, which provides criminal penalties for women seeking an abortion and their accomplices.
Despite this, a Gallup Latin America poll conducted in 2015 found that 77% of Dominicans are in favour of interrupting pregnancy to save the mother’s life.
However, only 32% supported abortion access to victims of rape, and a considerable 82% of the 1,204 adults surveyed opposed abortion for women’s own reasons.
Brazil still has a moderately high Catholic population, with around 65% of the population identifying as the religion. However, this figure has fallen sharply since the 1970s when 90% of the Brazilian population identified as Catholic.
The Brazilian Penal Code decriminalises abortion for three special cases: risk to the woman’s life, pregnancy resulting from rape, and more recently termination due to foetal anencephaly, linked to the Zika epidemic in 2016.
A Health Matters report published in 2013 found that Brazilians differ on abortion in most cases.
When asked whether women should be allowed the choice to terminate their own pregnancy, 82% of respondents answered No.
Former Green Party candidate and MP Eduardo Jorge, who supported legalising abortion during his presidential campaign, said: “Brazil is a country formed under the sign of the cross. Everything good and not so good that happened had the strong presence of the Catholic church.”
According to the Guardian, more recent research suggested that 65% of Brazilians support the current restrictions.
However, it found that faith had little to do with a woman’s decision to have an abortion, with many Catholic women in the country choosing to terminate their pregnancy.