How the Fine Gael lost the Dáil vote on abortion in 1983 while in government
The events of the past week prompted me to look back to see how Article 40.3.3° was proposed in the Dáil, knowing that there was an odd circumstance in its passing as the only constitutional amendment that was not a government amendment. The speeches are interesting to read as a snapshot into Ireland of 1983, and Oliver J. Flanagan’s contribution stands out in that respect, as does the speculation from Fianna Fáil’s Dr Seán McCarthy as to whether the Taoiseach had been influenced by the “pro-abortionists in Young Fine Gael”.
Though further amended in 1992 to protect the freedom to travel and receive information, the substantive clause as still exists was inserted by the Eight Amendment to the Constitution Act, 1983,
3º The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
Dr Garret FitzGerald was then leading a coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour, but only 13 TDs from the two government parties actually voted for that wording.
The wording above was drafted by the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign. There had been fears since the US Supreme Court had found a right to abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973, and the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign was further mobilised in the aftermath of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland in 1979. By the third election between June 1981 and November 1982, they had secured commitments from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to introduce this amendment. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution Bill was first moved in the dying days of the Fianna Fáil government in November 1982.
Fine Gael initially accepted this wording and in the Programme for Government with Labour, it was agreed that Labour would have a free vote on the bill. It was moved by Michael Noonan as Minister for Justice in February 1983.
Fine Gael’s alternative wording
Peter Sutherland, the Attorney-General, subsequently advised of problems with the wording, and in April, Michael Noonan moved an alternative amendment,
3º Nothing in this Constitution shall be invoked to invalidate, or to deprive of force or effect, any provision of a law on the ground that it prohibits abortion.
This wording would have meant that the current legislation prohibiting abortion, the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861, could not be deemed unconstitutional, and similarly for any possible subsequent legislation on abortion. This would thereby prevent a Roe v. Wade–like decision in the courts.
At the same time, a law to allow for abortion would also be consistent with this alternative amendment. This led to splits in both government parties. In Fine Gael, TDs who maintained their support for the original wording abstained in the vote on the alternative amendment. Labour allowed a free vote, and split three ways, between those who supported the original wording, those who opposed any amendment, and those who accepted that there would be a referendum and saw the Fine Gael alternative as at least better the the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign original wording.
Michael Noonan’s reasons for opposing the original wording seem chillingly prescient in the current context. This was on 27 April 1983,
Briefly, those defects are twofold: first, that the expression “the unborn” is very ambiguous; second, that the reference to the equal rights of the mother is insufficient to guarantee that operations necessary to save the live of the mother but resulting in the death of the foetus may continue.
On the first point, it is scarcely necessary to say that objection is not being raised simply on the basis that there is a certain degree of ambiguity. Some ambiguity is probably inescapable — language is not a precise instrument. The criticism in this case is the extent of the ambiguity, a criticism which is strengthened by the fact that it was obviously accepted in order to avoid argument.
On the second point, I would like the record to show very clearly what is being said by way of criticism — and what is not being said. It is not being said that the wording would be held to make the operations in question unlawful. Nobody could say with certainty what interpretation a court might put on the words. What is being said is that, on the ordinary meaning of words, that should be the interpretation and that therefore there must be a definite risk.
Of the opposition parties, Fianna Fáil maintained a strict whip against the alternative and in favour of the original wording and the two Workers’ Party TDs were against any amendment.
With this division between the parties, the amendment proposed by Michael Noonan was defeated by 65 votes to 87.
Between the parties:
- of the 74 Fianna Fáil TDs, 73 voted against;
- of the 70 Fine Gael TDs voted in favour, 60 voted in favour;
- of 16 Labour TDs, 5 TDs voted in favour (Liam Kavanagh, Barry Desmond, Michael Moynihan, Seamus Pattison, Dick Spring) and 10 TDs voted against (Michael Bell, Joe Bermingham, Frank Cluskey, Eileen Desmond, Seán Treacy, Toddy O’Sullivan, Frank Prendergast, Ruairí Quinn, John Ryan, Mervyn Taylor);
- both Workers’ Party TDs voted against, and;
- both Independents, Neil Blaney and Tony Gregory voted against.
Workers’ Party amendments
The Workers’ Party proposed further amendments, but as there weren’t sufficient numbers in the voice vote, the house wasn’t divided, and all these were lost. Even tho they opposed the amendment altogether, they proposed them to make the amendment a lesser harm or clearer in its meaning, and these proposed changes to the original wording highlighted show the nuances to the discussion at the time.
3º The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn human being and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
3º The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, subject to the right of the mother to life and bodily integrity, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
3º The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn human being and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable without interference with any existing right or lawful opportunity of any citizen, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
3º The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn human being and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable without interference with any existing right or lawful opportunity of any citizen, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right. This subsection shall not be cognisable by any Court except in a case seeking to have section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861, declared unconstitutional or contrary to any provision of this Constitution.
Original Pro-Life Amendment Campaign wording passes
After all attempts to change the wording had failed, the Dáil then proceeded to vote to retain the initial wording. This was a very strange vote; a vote to amend the constitution in which no Government Minister from the senior party voted. Nearly all the Fine Gael members who voted for the alternative wording abstained on this vote, while those who had abstained on the alternative voting in favour of this one. This motion passed by 87 vote to 13.
Between the parties:
- of the 74 Fianna Fáil TDs, 73 voted in favour;
- of 70 Fine Gael TDs, 8 TDs voted in favour (Michael Begley, Liam T. Cosgrave, Michael Joe Cosgrave, Joe Doyle, Oliver J. Flanagan, Alice Glenn, Tom O’Donnell and Godfrey Timmins), while 2 TDs voted against (Monica Barnes and Alan Shatter);
- of 16 Labour TDs, 5 voted in favour (Michael Bell, Frank McLoughlin, Frank Prendergast, John Ryan and Seán Treacy) and 8 TDs voted against (Joe Bermingham, Frank Cluskey, Barry Desmond, Eileen Desmond, Toddy O’Sullivan, Ruairí Quinn, Dick Spring and Mervyn Taylor);
- both Workers’ Party TDs voted against;
- and of the Independents, Neil Blaney voted in favour and Tony Gregory voted against.
The Bill proceeded to the Seanad where, after the three Trinity Senators, Catherine McGuinness, Mary Robinson and Shane Ross, were unsuccessful in pursuing amendments, it passed, with only Fianna Fáil Senators voting in favour.
The referendum was held on 7 September, 1983. The leaders of the two government parties, Dr Garret FitzGerald and Dick Spring, both called for a No vote; the leader of the opposition, Charlie Haughey, called for a Yes vote. It was passed by 67% of the electorate, carried in all but five constituencies (all in Dublin), on a turnout of 54%.
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