Constitutional Issues: Ireland & the Abortion Debate

Some countries have chosen to add in explicit prohibitions of abortion into their constitutional law, accepting the principle that the fetus is a pre-birth human with a resultant right to life. In 1983, for example, the Republic of Ireland by referendum amended the Irish Constitution to add in what became generally known as the 'Pro Life Amendment', which asserted that the fetus/foetus had an explicit right to life equal to that of its mother, with the Irish state guaranteeing to 'vindicate' that right. In the referendum, the case for the amendment was argued by the main opposition party, the Roman Catholic Church, some protestant church leaders and an pro-life lobby group called the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) (which had campaigned for the amendment, arguing that the Irish Courts could theoretically face their own Roe v. Wade court case) while the case against was put by a pro-choice lobby group called the Anti-Amendment Campaign, which included future President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. The arguments against the amendment were also put by the then Irish government, most mainstream protestant leaders and a minority of catholics. In the debate, no-one advocated the legalisation of abortion, which was already illegal under a nineteenth century law passed by the British parliament and still in force in Ireland. The amendment was overwhelmingly passed in a vote of the people.

While the 'Pro-Life Amendment' established the principle of the 'right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother' in Irish constitutional law, practical problems subsequently arose with its meaning. In 1992, a major controversy erupted over the issue of whether a minor who was a statutory rape victim, and who became pregnant, could travel to Great Britain [2] for an abortion. The Irish Supreme Court interpreted the Pro-Life Amendment as giving a right to abortion in certain limited circumstances, in a judgment which came to be known as the 'X Case'. Two subsequent constitutional amendments guaranteed the 'right to travel' and the 'right to information'. The issue of what form of constitutional prohibition on abortion Ireland should have (if any) has been revisited in a number of referenda, but no clear result or consensus has emerged, other than, whatever about the practicalities, in theory most Irish voters believe that a 'foetus' has a right to life equal to that of its mother, so excluding the option of choosing abortion, except in the limited grounds decided upon judicially in the 'X Case' judgment, which the Irish people in referenda have refused to narrow when offered that option.