Ireland Prime Minister Says He Will Campaign to Repeal Abortion Ban
Posted January 27, 2018 6:06 p.m. EST
DUBLIN — The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said Saturday that he will campaign to end his country’s constitutional ban on abortion, the subject of a referendum this year, ending weeks of uncertainty about his position.
Varadkar’s announcement was another significant boost for the effort to repeal the Eighth Amendment of Ireland’s Constitution, which gives an unborn fetus a right to life equal to that of its mother. In practice, Ireland’s legal system has interpreted this as a ban on abortions in almost all circumstances, including cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality.
Public support for repealing the ban has grown in recent years, as many voters have come to see it as inflexible, damaging to women’s rights and health, and out of touch in an Ireland where the once-powerful Roman Catholic Church has been weakened by abuse scandals.
Ireland’s Constitution can be amended only by a majority vote in a popular referendum, and the government has promised to hold such a ballot this year, probably in the summer.
While Varadkar had said previously that the law should be more liberal, he had, as recently as Thursday, declined to say whether he would campaign for repeal. He had said he was waiting for his Cabinet to agree on a position.
But he appeared to short-circuit this process during a Saturday-morning appearance on BBC Radio’s “Today” program. Asked if he would favor a relaxation of the laws, Varadkar announced: “I’ll be campaigning for them to be changed and to be liberalized, yes.”
Varadkar’s announcement came one day after The Irish Times published an opinion poll that suggested a majority of Irish people, 56 percent, favor repealing the constitutional ban and permitting abortion for up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy, as recommended by a parliamentary committee. Only 29 percent were opposed to repealing the ban, a stark change from 1983 when nearly 67 percent of voters approved the introduction of the Eighth Amendment.
Pro-repeal campaigners had contrasted Varadkar’s initial reticence with the stance of his chief rival, Micheal Martin, who heads the country’s main opposition party. On Jan. 18, Martin announced that, despite having previously opposed repealing the ban, he now supported unrestricted access to the procedure in Ireland up to the end of the first trimester of pregnancy.
Martin’s decision, which he said was based on the medical, legal and personal testimony given to last year’s parliamentary committee on abortion, put him at odds with factions of his own conservative Fianna Fail party, which at its most recent annual conference voted overwhelmingly against repealing the ban. Martin’s directness also put Varadkar — whose Fine Gael party, although economically conservative, has a socially liberal wing — in an uncomfortable position with his own base.
Varadkar was the fresh face of leadership last year when, at 38, he became Ireland’s youngest prime minister. He is the first Irish prime minister to have a nonwhite parent, and he came out as gay in the run-up to the successful 2015 initiative to legalize same-sex marriage.
Previously, while a junior member of Parliament, Varadkar had taken a number of socially conservative positions. In 2010, he spoke against legalizing abortion for victims of rape, saying it would lead to abortion on demand. In 2009, he opposed changing a law to allow gay couples to adopt children.
But during his Saturday morning interview, Varadkar said his beliefs had evolved since 2014, when he had described himself as “pro-life.”
“I think sometimes that term ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ can be misunderstood. You know, I think even people who are in favor of abortion in certain circumstances are pro-life,” he said. “I still believe in life, but I understand that there are circumstances in which pregnancies can’t continue.”
He added: “Every single person I know who says they are pro-choice believes in some sort of restriction. These terms pro-life and pro-choice don’t really comprehend the complexity of this issue, which is a very private and personal one and one I think contains a lot of gray areas.”
If repealed, the constitutional ban would be replaced by legislation regulating abortion, most likely permitting it under at least some circumstances. Varadkar’s government says it will disclose its proposed legislation before voters act on the constitutional provision, but it has yet to formally agree on what the measures might be. An all-party parliamentary committee voted in December in favor of permitting unrestricted abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and later in cases of rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormality.
Varadkar has yet to say whether he will support the parliamentary committee’s proposal. The proposal, though more restrictive than abortion laws in many Western countries, was more liberal than had been anticipated.
Several committee members who had previously described themselves as anti-abortion said they had changed their minds after listening to medical and legal evidence, and personal testimony from women.
Varadkar’s Cabinet on Monday will try to agree on the wording of the referendum.
Several thousand Irish women travel abroad for abortions each year, the majority to Britain. Figures from the United Kingdom’s health care service for 2015 showed that at least 3,400 Irish women had gone to England and Wales for abortions that year.