The move also seems to offer further evidence of a changing Ireland. The proposed vote comes on the heels of a 2015 referendum on gay marriage in Ireland. 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.
The rise of Varadkar himself also hints at this change. The fresh-faced leader is not only Ireland's youngest — he is also openly gay and half Indian.
However, Ireland's shift on abortion may not be quite as dramatic as it seems — at least not so far. 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 — including Britain, the country to which thousands of Irish women travel for abortions every year.
Ireland's current constitution states that the right to life of an unborn child and the mother are equal, meaning 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.)
The eighth amendment was broadened after a 1992 referendum, which stipulated that travel to another jurisdiction for an abortion was legal and that information about abortion services abroad could be provided to Irish citizens. Two further referendums that attempted to further narrow the criteria failed in 1992 and 2002.
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 exactly how is a more complicated question.
One survey conducted by Ipsos MRBI in late May found that the public was strongly in favor of abortion when there was a serious risk to the health of a woman (82 percent agreement), where the pregnancy was the result of rape (76 percent agreement), where there is serious risk to the mental health of the woman (72 percent agreement) and when there is a fetal abnormality likely to lead to death (67 percent).
However, there was a clear line not to be crossed. The poll suggested that the public drew a line on abortion on request (67 percent against) and in cases where financial or family support are not in place (68 percent against). This would set Irish views apart from the laws in many European countries and a handful of U.S. jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia.
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.
Things could change, of course, once a referendum date is announced and campaigning begins. In April, the Irish Citizens' Assembly — a special committee made up of 99 members of the public chosen at random to produce recommendations on important issues — reached the conclusion that unrestricted abortion should be allowed in the country, up to the 12th week of pregnancy, with some restrictions after that.
One member of the assembly, a man in his mid-50s from Cork, later told the Irish Times that he became more convinced during deliberations of the need for a more liberalized system. “Abortion legislation in Ireland is in a little bubble,” said John Long. “I tried to stand outside the Irish bubble and look in. When I started to listen about termination legislation in other countries, I came to the conclusion that we should follow international best practice. It’s a women’s rights issue.”
“It is very difficult to sit through all of that and not have a more compassionate view,” another member of the assembly, 39-year-old Louise Caldwell from Tara, told the newspaper. “It is important to state that if you get so much information and so many different scenarios presented, it is hard to see yourself in a situation where you would deny that person access to an abortion.”
It's also worth noting that 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. But with abortion just one of several referendums tentatively scheduled for the next few years, it remains to be seen whether this sort of enthusiasm can be maintained.
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