Referendum 1992: Abortion and The 'X' Case

Abortion had been made legal in Britain in 1967. Although this hardly passed without controversy, the fact that it passed at all marked a distinct difference between British society and society in Ireland, which had by was accustomed to its political leaders behaving deferentially to the Catholic hierarchy. Former Taoiseach John A. Costello had famously declared himself "a Catholic first, an Irishman second", while then-President Éamon de Valera's strong relationship with the Church was well known. Then then-Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, had a strong conservative reputation, as well as being eager to voice the opinions of the hierarchy on any matters being discussed.

Even as Irish society slowly began to liberalise from the 1970s onwards, attitudes to faith, to the hierarchy and to the issue of abortion remained the same as they had always been. In 1983, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government held a referendum to clarify the state's prohibition of abortion. The prohibition was strongly supported. Conservatism in Ireland was further challenged by the Divorce Referendum in 1986, in which the status quo once again triumphed.

The 'X' Case:
Irish societal attitudes would not remain so static for much longer, however. The 1990s brought a new wave of liberalisation, as globalisation quickened and as scandals rocked the Catholic church, driving more and more people away from it. This decade also brought with it a crisis which would force Ireland to revisit the abortion issue on-and-off for twenty years. In 1992, a 14 year old girl, who had been raped and made pregnant by her neighbour, sought a termination of the pregnancy. The girl told her mother of suicidal thoughts she was experiencing as a result of her ordeal and the pregnancy, and the family decided to travel to England to procure an abortion. Before leaving Ireland, the family asked the Gardaí if DNA from the aborted foetus would be admissible in court. Now aware that the girl sought an abortion, Attorney General Harry Whelehan sought an injunction through the 1983 abortion law preventing the girl from travelling to England. This injunction was granted. Throughout the proceedings, the girl's identity was kept from the public. She was referred to as 'X', hence the legal furore surrounding her became known as the 'X' Case.

The injunction, which had been granted by the High Court, was overturned by the Supreme Court, though as it happened, 'X' miscarried shortly before she was due to travel. The political ramifications of the Supreme Court's decision were enormous, as it had vindicated former Attorney General Peter Sutherland's advice in 1983 that the wording of the proposed abortion amendment left itself open to interpretation as allowing abortion in limited circumstances. The Supreme Court had now set a precedent for the risk of suicide being enough to justify an abortion to protect the life of the mother. Albert Reynolds' Government responded with a series of referenda later in the year. Three separate ballots on the abortion issue were to be held, in tandem with the 1992 general election on 25 November. The most prominent of the three (the proposed Twelfth Amendment) sought to remove the risk of suicide as grounds for a termination. The other two (the proposed Thirteenth and Fourteenth) concerned the right of freedom of travel with respect to abortion and the right to information on abortion services in other states, respectively.

The Campaigns:
The return of abortion to the front stage of Irish political discussion brought with it a very active campaign from both pro-life and pro-choice groups. Most pro-life groups predicted a Yes victory in the 12th amendment referendum and a No victory in the remaining two: that the electorate would support the removal of the risk of suicide as grounds for an abortion, that they would prohibit the freedom to travel with respect to abortion, and that they would prohibit information on abortion services in other states. The Government hoped for a Yes victory in all three. The fact the referenda were held on the same day as the general election resulted in a relatively high number of pro-life independent candidates running across various constituencies, although none were elected.

The Government released literature aimed at answering common questions about the amendments. Within, the Government was quick to "emphatically" state that this was not an abortion referendum, instead framing their argument around the need for legal clarity. The Alliance for Choice, a group consisting of (amongst others) the Irish Family Planning Association, Democratic Left Youth, Young Fine Gael, Labour Youth and the Union of Students of Ireland, argued for a No-Yes-Yes vote being vital for women's rights. The Socialist Workers' Movement addressed its literature to secondary school students - people of a similar age to 'X' - arguing for the need for comprehensive sex education in Irish schools. Conversely, some pro-life groups took on a very traditionalist stance. A leaflet distributed by Waterford man Páidí Sweeney made a fiery argument against abortion - "Look. If you vote 'Yes' to abortion you commit a grave sin and risk going to Hell. For what? For Albert Reynolds?" The Pro-Life Campaign's leaflet was much less provocative, though it warned that abortion would become a reality in Irish hospitals if the Supreme Court's ruling was left unchallenged.

The Results:
The results of the referendum. The colours indicate which side won in each constituency, the numbers indicate the winning figure.
For the first time in an Irish referendum, every constituency returned a No vote. The Irish electorate strongly rejected removing the risk of suicide as grounds for an abortion. The highest No vote was from Dublin South East (73.7%), while the lowest was Mayo West (59.5%). Curiously, the highest No victories came from constituencies which are known for being liberal (the south-east Dublin constituencies) and those which are known for being conservative (Donegal and Cork North West). In this particular vote, both the Government and pro-life groups lost out. The proposed Twelfth Amendment was rejected.

Yes: 34.7%
No: 65.4%
Turnout: 68.2%

The results of the referendum. The colours indicate which side won in each constituency, the numbers indicate the winning figure.
The referendum on the Thirteenth Amendment (Freedom to Travel) returned a result which more clearly showed the Irish societal divide. While altogether passed, his amendment was most supported in Dublin and the surrounding counties, as well as Cork South Central. Donegal and Cork North West were the only areas to reject it, with Donegal South-West in particular returning a solid No vote at 61.4%. The Government had "won" this referendum, but the pro-life campaign had again lost out.

Yes: 62.4%
No: 37.6%
Turnout: 68.2%
The results of the referendum. The colours indicate which side won in each constituency, the numbers indicate the winning figure.
Similarly, the Irish electorate supported the availability of information on abortion services in other states, though by a slightly smaller margin than its twin. Limerick West joined Cork North West and the two Donegals in rejecting this amendment, but once again strong support came from the Dublin/East Leinster area as well as a sizeable amount on Galway West and Clare. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed.

Yes: 59.9%
No: 40.1%
Turnout: 68.1%

The Irish electorate had voted No-Yes-Yes, the opposite of what pro-life groups had hoped for, and a two-out-of-three victory for the Government. The results were greeted warmly by pro-choice groups, which had hoped for an outcome such as this one. However, the Fianna Fáil-Labour government which emerged from the general election did not enact any legislation relating to either the 'X' Case or the referendum results. This inaction was repeated by the succeeding Fine Gael-Labour coalition (1994-97) and the Fianna Fáil coalitions (1997-2011) which followed, although a new referendum on the risk of suicide as grounds for an abortion was held in 2001.

Although criticised, nothing was actively done about the inaction of successive governments in this area until the tragic death in October 2012 of a pregnant woman who had been miscarrying but was refused a medical abortion on the grounds that it was illegal. The foetus was only removed when its own heartbeat stopped, but by this point the health of the mother, Savita Halappanavar, had deteriorated significantly and she died soon after. The public outcry from her death was enormous, leading to renewed calls for the government to act on the abortion issue. After a month of controversy both inside and outside the Dáil, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced on 18 December 2012 that the government would legislate for abortion, with a mixture of legislation and regulations to govern if and how an abortion should be granted if the mother's life is at risk - including from the risk of suicide.