The Legal Impact of Repealing the 8th Amendment

I have a letter in today’s Irish Times on the potential constitutional impacts of a ‘simple’ repeal of the 8th Amendment. It is a response to Gerry Whyte’s (TCD) opinion editorial in the same paper yesterday, in which he presents what I think a highly unlikely scenario as a near certainty. My letter goes as follows:

Sir, – Prof Gerry Whyte argues that removing the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution may well be interpreted as being intended to remove all constitutional protection from the foetus so that any limitations on abortion in future law would be unconstitutional.

There is another possible outcome from a “simple” repeal – that the foetus might be said to have some constitutional rights that existed before, and go beyond, the right to life inserted in Article 40.3.3 so that these are not disturbed by removal of the Eighth Amendment. However, while both outcomes are possible, realistically speaking neither seems especially probable. One is an extreme interpretation of the removal of Article 40.3.3 and the other would seem to fly in the face of the sovereign will of the people expressed in a vote to remove it.

Furthermore, neither would be consistent with comparative and international best practice. Even in countries where there is no constitutional protection of the foetus, the law recognises a state interest in the preservation of foetal life that allows for regulation of abortion provided any limits that are implemented (such as time limits or “grounds”) do not unduly or disproportionately interfere with the rights of pregnant women. That is consistent with a rights-based approach to the regulation of healthcare in general, and the availability of abortion in particular.

It so happens that it is also consistent with the model abortion law that was drafted and published by a group of 10 feminist lawyers (including me) in 2015 and in respect of which, among other things, we recommended that it might be wise to include a positively worded right in the Constitution to bodily integrity and the right to self-determination in medical matters, making clear that nothing in the Constitution would preclude access to abortion as regulated by law.

That model law and an accompanying short explanation are available for all to read online (“Abortion Law Reform in Ireland: A Model for Change”).

What Prof Whyte’s article, our 2015 proposal, and this response really illustrate is that the question of how we go about reforming the Constitution on the matter of abortion is a complicated one.

What seems vital is that we do not let political expediency override the need for care and attention to be paid to the constitutional text. We did that in 1983, and we all know where that got us. – Yours, etc,

Prof FIONA de LONDRAS,

Birmingham Law School,

University of Birmingham

Edgbaston, Birmingham.

I have written about a potential replacement provision both in the piece linked in the letter and with Mairead Enright in this piece here which was published as Máiréad Enright & Fiona de Londras, “‘Empty Without and Empty Within’: The Unworkability of the Eighth Amendment after Savita Halappanavar and Miss Y” (2014) 20(2) Medico-Legal Journal of Ireland 85

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fdelondras

Professor of Global Legal Studies, Birmingham. Lawyer, foodie, wonk, avid traveller.

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