Why Voting to Repeal Would Not Be Democratic

The upcoming referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution is likely to occur in May or June of this year as indicated by the Taoiseach. The repeal campaign should be congratulated for advancing this debate as much as they have, ensuring that we are to have this much needed referendum. However, I do not believe that we should vote to repeal the 8th Amendment even though I am pro – choice.

The Repeal campaign appears to focus on a 2-horse race, either to keep the 8th or to repeal it. You are either for or against the Repeal campaign. Everyone who believes that abortion should be allowed up to 12 weeks or 22 weeks or with no limitations are pushed together under one label, the Repeal campaign. However, I do not believe that it would be reasonable to carry out such a sensitive referendum that has so many grey areas in such a manner. The opinions on abortion within the repeal campaign are notably different and diverse.   

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Let’s use these figures (as seen in the graphic above) from a vote carried out during the Citizens Assembly to illustrate why carrying out a referendum in such a manner may not be democratic.

64% of the Members have recommended that the termination of pregnancy without restriction should be lawful. Although this was not an explicit vote to repeal the 8th, we will use this as an indicator of support for repeal among members. 64% of the members seems like a substantial victory for the Repeal campaign, however, if we break down the numbers, the 36% who voted against this proposal would actually win in a referendum.

Which stage that the termination of pregnancy should be lawful Percent of all Citizen Assembly voters Breakdown of the 64% in favour of “repeal”
Up to 12 weeks gestation age only 31% 48%
Up to 22 weeks gestation age only 28% 44%
No restriction to gestational age 5% 8%
Against 36%

In the above vote, even though the majority of members voted implicitly for some form of repeal, it is obvious that there is not a clear consensus on what form repeal should take. Even breaking down the 64% of members that voted for some manner of repeal, in no instance did even half of them agree on a single form of repeal. The above vote illustrates the great range of views within the Repeal campaign, a range of views that cannot be represented by a simple vote to repeal or not to repeal.

 Unfortunately, due to the binary nature of our referendum system it would not be currently possible to give voters multiple options. As per the current system, a Bill must be passed by the Oireachtas proposing a specific amendment to the Constitution. The people are then asked a simple Yes/No question on the proposed amendment.

One solution would be to hold a preferendum, which is a referendum that offers a choice of several options. However, to be able to hold a preferendum, we would first have to hold a referendum to amend Article 46 of the Constitution to allow for a preferendum. Preferendums have been used in the past in countries such as Switzerland, New Zealand and Sweden.

If the 8th is repealed then, although it may be an unlikely outcome of a repeal decision, a political decision may be made to hold a 2nd referendum deciding on the particulars of our abortion laws. If that occurs after a successful repeal campaign, then the pro-life view would probably not be considered or represented in the subsequent campaign.

I fit into the category of people who will vote to retain the 8th if the Oireachtas puts a proposal to the people which removes the right to life wording without replacing it with constitutional restrictions such as a 12-week limit.  Voters might not trust the Oireachtas to limit abortion to their specific beliefs.  After all, politicians are not renowned for keeping their campaign promises. For example; the 7th Amendment passed in 1979 (which enabled the Oireachtas to extend the Seanad election franchise to graduates of more third level institutions) has still not been implemented, 38 years later. What reason have we to believe that they if we simply repeal the 8th that they will in fact implement the promised limitations?

This subject is being put to the people to decide for a reason. We have been given to power to decide, let’s not hand this power away. This power would be retained if the outcome to the referendum was a vote to amend. Under Irish law, changes to the Constitution can only be made by means of a referendum. Therefore, any amendments made would have to be done by a referendum decided by the people.

If we highlight this issue now and garner national attention for an Amend campaign in a similar fashion to how the Repeal campaign brought about this referendum, then we could ensure the inclusion of several amendment options into the upcoming referendum and make redundant the possible need to hold two separate referendums on the same issue. Let’s not march to repeal, let’s march to amend.


Peter Hoy – Politics Writer

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