In May or June 2018 Ireland will hold a referendum on whether to repeal the near-total constitutional ban on abortion.
This is a big deal for women in Ireland. The referendum would be won against the religious right, as with the 2015 referendum which voted in favour of same-sex marriages. Recent polling shows 82% in favour of some loosening of abortion laws.
The referendum is the direct result of a “citizen’s assembly” where a demographically-balanced group of people came out in favour of repealing some of Ireland’s abortion laws, in fact more than may be on the table in this referendum.
The referendum will also be happening only a month or two before an official Papal visit to Ireland, scheduled for August.
The referendum, if won, would repeal the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution which reads: “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.”
In reality the eighth amendment gives a foetus equal status in law with a woman, and often results in medical professionals refusing to carry out abortions even in situations where they are legal, such as when the woman’s life is in danger.
As Professor of Law, Senator Ivana Bacik has written, the eighth amendment “is uniquely misogynistic, in that it expressly sets up the right to life of both the pregnant woman and the foetus that she carries in conflict – anticipating that a time would come when somebody would have to decide between them.”
Currently a woman convicted of having had an illegal abortion can face up to 14 years in prison. There have been numerous cases of women who have died as a result of doctors not carrying out emergency terminations, like that of Savita Halappanavar in 2012.
Repealing the eighth amendment would not legalise, or decriminalise, abortion in most cases. Abortion has been illegal since the foundation of the state of Ireland when British laws were incorporated into the state legislature. The eighth amendment was introduced by referendum after a campaign by the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign who saw pro-choice progress in the UK and US and sought to tighten up abortion laws in Ireland.
It is widely believed that a referendum is the least the government could do. On Saturday 30 September tens of thousands marched in Dublin for the March for Choice. At the demo Caoimhe Doyle from the Abortion Rights Campaign accused the Government of attempting to “get away with the minimum it can do” on the topic, and urged those present to make their local TDs aware of the necessity for “free, safe and legal abortion access”.
But the referendum will also be an indicative vote on the potential for wider changes on abortion law which would bring safe, free and legal abortions to women in Ireland in most circumstances.
• Repeal the Eighth campaign