Leading article

The Eighth Amendment

IF the constitution of a country can be said to reflect its soul, then Ireland has been engaged in a prolonged period of soul-searching.

Any proposal to amend the Constitution will be inherently controversial, and the issues being voted upon in Friday's referendum could hardly be more emotive or complex.

The electorate is being asked whether the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which relates to abortion, should be repealed.

It was added in 1983, and acknowledges the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother and commits the state to "defend and vindicate" that right.

Support came from the leaders of Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil, along with the Catholic Church, and the amendment won the backing of two-thirds of voters.

Referendums in 1992 added subsections which meant information about abortion services in other countries could be made available in the Republic and that women were free to travel to obtain an abortion in another country.

The net effect is that while Ireland has a restrictive abortion regime, with termination illegal unless it as the result of a medical intervention to save the life of the mother, a steady stream of women travel elsewhere - to England, mainly - for an abortion.

Women are also turning to illegal abortion pills, which are available on the internet. The lack of regulation and statutory medical advice in these cases should be of the gravest concern.

These are not simply philosophical constructs but tragic realities with which the State must wrestle as it seeks to protect the sanctity of life of both the mother and unborn.

The government's answer is for the Eighth Amendment to be repealed and the Oireachtas to be allowed to legislate, as the wording of the referendum puts it, "for the regulation of termination of pregnancy".

It says it has reached this position following a national conversation which has included recommendations put forward by a Citizens' Assembly on the Eighth Amendment and a detailed report from an Oireachtas joint committee.

Strong arguments both in support of repeal and retaining the status quo have been advanced from a range of groups including politicians, the Churches and medical professionals.

In a modern, mature democracy their positions deserve to be heard.

Repeal advocates argue that women should be allowed to make their own choices; they should not need to travel for a termination, or face the risks associated with abortion pills; no-one should be forced to carry a baby with a 'fatal foetal abnormality' or conceived as a result of rape; a liberalised approach to abortion is part of the same social change that saw Ireland back same-sex marriage.

But, citing the maxim 'hard cases make bad law', pro-life campaigners point to the joint committee's finding that "the majority of terminations are for socio-economic reasons that are unrelated to foetal abnormality or to rape".

The government's proposal that there should be unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, with doctors administering tablets rather than women turning to illegal pills, has caused particular alarm.

Voters, as people of good will and compassion, have a duty to consider the issues, listen to the arguments and weigh them against their own consciences.

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