Will Ireland finally legalize abortion? Polls paint a complicated picture.

ANALYSIS | Surveys show the public isn’t ready for abortion under every circumstance


Adapted from a story by The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor.

Abortion is still illegal in Ireland. In fact, thousands of Irish women travel to Britain to get the procedure every year.

But that might change in 2018.

During his first speech as Ireland’s national leader on Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced that the country intends to hold a referendum on its constitutional ban on abortion.

The vote could signal major change for Ireland, one of the last European countries where abortion is still illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, inevitable miscarriage and fatal fetal abnormality.

When it comes to abortion, opinion polls paint a complicated picture of Irish voters’ views. There is general support for reform, most find, but relatively few Irish voters want the more liberalized laws found in other European nations.

What current law states

Ireland’s current constitution states that the right to life of an unborn child and the mother are equal. Abortion is illegal in all cases except those where the mother’s life is clearly endangered, including the risk of suicide.

This is stipulated in the eighth amendment to the constitution, which Irish voters approved 67 percent to 33 percent in a 1983 referendum. (Ireland’s constitution requires a popular vote for any changes to the constitution.)

After a 1992 referendum, voters agreed to broaden the eighth amendment. Women can legally travel to another jurisdiction for an abortion. It’s also legal to provide information about abortion services abroad to Irish citizens.

Two other referendums that attempted to further narrow the criteria failed in 1992 and 2002.

What polls show

Most polls conducted in recent years suggest that broad support exists for changing the eighth amendment in some way, either by repealing it or altering it.

But a survey conducted by Ipsos MRBI in late May found that many aren’t on board with abortions under all circumstances. Sixty-seven percent of respondents said they were against abortion on request, or under any circumstances. Sixty-eight percent were against women getting abortions if they felt unprepared financially or lacked family support.

Here’s what respondents agreed on:

  • Abortion when there was a serious risk to the health of a woman (82 percent agreement)
  • If the pregnancy was the result of rape (76 percent agreement)
  • If there is serious risk to the mental health of the woman (72 percent agreement)
  • When there is a fetal abnormality likely to lead to death (67 percent

A separate poll conducted by Behavior and Attitudes for the Sunday Times in late April and early May offered similar findings on Irish views on abortion. Irish voters were found to oppose a system in which abortion was permitted without any restrictions on the reasons for the procedure (61 percent against), while a slightly smaller proportion opposed abortion when the parents would have difficulty supporting the child financially (58 percent).

Notably, data released from the Behavior and Attitudes poll earlier this year did not show any major shift in views on abortion over the past four years.

However, polls consistently show a more liberal attitude to abortion among younger Irish voters. These same young Irish voters traveled from far and wide to make sure they cast a vote in the 2015 gay marriage referendum.

In that case, 62 percent of voters favored gay marriage and 38 percent opposed it — making Ireland the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote, despite a conservative push by the still-powerful Roman Catholic Church.

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