Anti-abortion advocates have described the decision by the SDLP leader to support a ‘Yes’ vote in Friday’s Irish abortion referendum as confusing, disappointing, and an act of “political suicide”.
Colum Eastwood last night said that he is backing the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Republic of Ireland’s constitution – something which will pave the way for abortion to be liberalised.
While the move was welcomed on social media by pro-choice supporters, it prompted a strong reaction from anti-abortion lobbyists.
Mr Eastwood told the BBC that “I don’t believe abortion should be dealt with in the Irish constitution ... I would support Repeal the Eighth”.
However, he also went on to reiterate that the SDLP itself is “pro-life”.
Dawn McAvoy, co-founder of pro-life group Both Lives Matter, said SDLP voters have been left “confused as to where they stand”, while Bernie Smyth of Precious Life said the news will be “shocking” for SDLP supporters, and amounts to “political suicide”.
Mr Eastwood’s stance also conflicts with SDLP grandee Seamus Mallon, who told the News Letter just hours earlier he would back a ‘No’ vote.
SDLP LEADERSHIP ALREADY UNDER FIRE:
The Eighth Amendment was inserted into the constitution in 1983 and affirms “the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”.
Scrapping this will allow the law to be liberalised, and it is expected that if repealed the government will introduce proposals for unrestricted abortions up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
Even before giving his interview yesterday, Mr Eastwood had already been under fire over a party conference in Maghera on Saturday, when the SDLP determined that it is “a pro-life party”, but also that it supports “freedom of conscience voting” on abortion.
Former leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said he “can’t make much sense” out of that position, summing it up as: “We’re pro-life – but you can do your own thing.”
EASTWOOD OFFERS OWN VIEW ON VOTE:
Then speaking to BBC Newsline yesterday evening about his own personal views, Mr Eastwood said: “I don’t believe that abortion should be dealt with in the Irish constitution. Bunreacht na hEireann [the Irish name for the constitution] is not the place to deal with issues like abortion.
“In fact because it’s in there, it’s made it very, very difficult – impossible in fact – for legislators to deal with some of the more hard issues.”
He added “so I would support Repeal the Eighth” (as the ‘Yes’ campaign is generally known), and allow politicians to set the law instead.
Whilst he said “we are very proud” of “the party’s pro-life position”, this stance “just doesn’t cover all of the eventualities that legislators have to deal with”.
However, when it comes to the ramifications of a ‘Yes’ vote, the BBC further quoted him as saying that he finds “the 12-week proposal quite uncomfortable”.
PRO-LIFERS HIT OUT:
Speaking to the News Letter, Dawn McEvoy of Both Lives Matter (who is also a researcher for the Evangelical Alliance) said: “I’m very disappointed. We don’t believe that you can be pro-life and pro-repeal.
“Traditional SDLP voters have a lot to consider. We’d encourage them to contact their individual representatives and ask them very clearly what their position is.
“Colum Eastwood is knowingly inviting abortion into Northern Ireland. We all know that this is one island with an invisible border, and whatever happens in either jurisdiction regarding abortion legislation will impact the entire island.”
She said 12-week proposal promises to be “at least as liberal” as the current UK law, if not more so.
Bernie Smyth of Precious Life said: “I think this new development will harm the party. They themselves have always made it clear that they were born out of the civil rights movement.
“It’s actually hypocritical. I think they need to rebrand; they need to change the name of their party and make it very clear they’re no longer a civil rights party, because civil rights begin in the womb.
“They’re either pro-life or they’re not. They’re either again abortion, or they’re not. But they can’t be both. This is disingenuous, misleading and confusing.”
She added that “it’s an act of political suicide [by] Colum Eastwood to be so bold, so outspoken”, given that he has stressed the party’s pro-life credentials in the past.
Veteran SDLP figure Seamus Mallon yesterday told the News Letter that, when it comes to his own view on the Republic’s referendum: “If I were voting there, I’d be voting ‘No’ because of the terms imposed with this, or which may be imposed with it – terms of termination at up to 12 weeks. That’d be my personal position as to what my conscience would tell me.”
He said the position of the party being pro-life and also allowing abortion to be a matter of conscience is “not contradictory”.