The one consistent thread throughout the Committee hearings and subsequent debate in Leinster House on the referendum to introduce abortion, was the extraordinary cross party consensus among supporters of repeal. From the right of Fine Gael to the far left of the various Trotskyist configurations, and all points between, there was an insistence that the wording be confined simply to the proposal to remove the 8th amendment.
Once the electorate agreed to repeal simpliciter then the majority in favour of abortion in the Oireachtas could then legislate to introduce the 12 weeks limit and other provisions which they do not want to become the focus of attention. And without the irritant of having to place all of that before the citizenry.
That seemed to be going to plan until Simon Harris, on legal advice from the Attorney General but perhaps also sensing the opportunity to lead the liberal charge, persuaded the Cabinet on the need to include specific criteria. The Attorney General advised the Government at the end of January that a simple repeal of the 8th would lead to possible legal challenges, and that the wording needed to include the provision for the Oireachtas to legislate if the referendum proposal passes. That was accepted. It seems that Harris was also persuaded to go beyond that and to include a reference to a 12 weeks gestational period as being part of the legislation to be introduced if the repeal side wins.
That is exactly what most of most of the abortion camp did not want. The Committee and Dáil debates and votes would indicate that there is support for a liberal interpretation of the option of legislate, which was going to be exercised anyway, but they would have preferred that any debate on the terms be postponed until after the referendum when the electorate will not have a direct say on the legislation. The placing of the 12 weeks limit will mean that people will be voting on that, and not on some vague proposal wrapped up in appeals to fairness and other factors that have nothing to do with the reality of what is being proposed.
Sinn Féin was already in a double quandary as although the majority of its TDs and senators were in favour of 12 weeks, that is not yet party policy, and must await an Ard Fheis to be held after the referendum. That will become a total irrelevance if there is reference to 12 weeks in the proposal. It surely now means that Sinn Féin will have to campaign for a No vote. Otherwise, party members advocating repeal are going against party policy.
Jonathan O’Brien was insistent that there be no references to any gestational period on the basis that Sinn Féin needed to avoid at all costs such an embarrassing scenario as has now transpired. He made the somewhat bizarre statement that “There is an onus on politicians to recognise that we do not have the expertise to adjudicate on what gestational time frames if any should be put in place; that should be a matter for the medical profession and the women of the country.”
So, despite the fact that it will indeed be O’Brien and his fellow members of the Dáil and Seanad who will have to legislate on the terms under which abortion will be made available, he seemed content that they be told what to do by the “medical profession and the women of the country,” as if they are some sort of homogenous group. Would he also be agreeable to the Budget being framed by the “banking profession” and property speculators?
It also implies that Sinn Féin and others would prefer that the electorate gave them carte blanche by just voting to repeal the 8th, and that they could then get on with framing liberal abortion laws that had not been voted on by the electorate. Which is a very strange conception of democracy and republicanism.
Slightly panicked by all of this, and having folded like other “pro life” TDs on 12 weeks, Táinaiste Simon Coveney proposed that any legislation on abortion, subsequent to introducing it up to 12 weeks, would require a two-thirds majority. That was ruled out by the Cabiner. It smacked of desperation on the part of Coveney who thought that he could run with the hare and hunt with the fox. He really must think people are a bit dim if he thinks that such a proposal would restore his credibility with the anti abortion side after he has capitulated on allowing abortion up to 12 weeks.
The more liberal elements, including Sinn Féin, loudly objected because they will indeed use a Yes vote and the provision for abortion up to 12 weeks to further push back the limits and criteria until all the politically correct boxes have been ticked. Sinn Féin and the far left already indicated the direction in which this will proceed by voting unsuccessfully at Committee to include “socio economic” reasons to be tied to health as a valid justification for abortion.
The “socio economic” clause separate from health was put by independent Senator Lynn Ruane who claimed that there is “loads of socio-economic stuff that can come up after the 12th week of pregnancy.” The closest she came to explaining what this would mean is that it would include members of a “minority group” or being “disadvantaged.” One wonders if she realises how close that is to the position of the early 20th century eugenicists on the extreme left and right who believed in the “stuff” about social health being improved by culling “minority groups” and the “disadvantaged,” and the disabled.
Meanwhile, given how insistent they are on adherence to the “party line,” Sinn Féin are surely bound to campaign for a No vote if there is any reference to a 12 weeks gestation period in what will be put to the electorate.