What you need to know about Ireland's abortion referendum

  1. Abortion a contentious issue with passionate views on both sides
  2. Eight Amendment inserted into Constitution 35 years ago
  3. Expatriates flocked home in 2015 to vote for gay marriage

Voters in the traditionally Catholic Republic of Ireland will decide on the future of abortion law there on Friday May 25 in a historic referendum that follows years of turbulent debate on the subject.

There is a near-total ban on abortion in Ireland, making the country one of the strictest in the world on the procedure, despite constitutional protection for those who choose to visit other countries for abortions. The referendum, which opens up the potential for easing abortion legislation, marks a move away from the Catholic conservatism that has long defined the country.

The ballot will be on whether to retain or repeal the section of Article 40, containing the Eighth Amendment, added to Ireland’s Constitution in 1983. It bans terminations on the basis that the unborn and a pregnant person have equal rights. The section to be removed or retained after the referendum currently reads:

Article 40.3.3º: 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.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.

If the Irish public vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the 36th Amendment will pass, replacing the Eighth with:

Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.

Wording for the referendum question was agreed by the Irish cabinet, which on March 8 approved the Referendum Bill. This was delayed slightly because of a Supreme Court ruling on March 7 on an application to extend the unborn’s constitutional rights. Instead the court ruled the unborn has no rights under the Irish constitution other than the right to life, protected by the Eighth Amendment.

The referendum will ask voters whether they want to repeal the Eighth Amendment and replace it with the phrase “provision be made in law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy” (Irish Times). Prime Minister Leo Varadkar will campaign for reform, according to the BBC.

Health minister Simon Harris is drafting legislation proposing that unrestricted access to terminations is made available to women who are up to 12 weeks pregnant, and in exceptional circumstances after that point.

Campaigners have long called for repeal of the Eighth, and the law has become a fixture of women’s rights movements in Ireland. Last year the National Parliament (Oireachtas) Committee on the Eighth Amendment recommended the removal of the ban on abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy (Irish Times).

The referendum is about asking people “to allow women to make major decisions for themselves,” Varadkar said. “It’s about trusting women to decide, in the early weeks of their pregnancy, what’s right for them and their families.”

The current law

Ireland has a long and unsettled history with abortion rights, with conversations surrounding the procedure controversial in the Irish Republic but even more so in Northern Ireland (The Guardian).

The Eighth Amendment, approved by referendum and enacted in 1983, effectively banned terminations in almost all cases.

But in 2013 a complete ban on the procedure was lifted to allow terminations only in cases where the pregnancy endangered the mother’s life. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act includes the risk of suicide as a mortal condition. It does not permit abortion in cases of rape or incest.

In 2016, just 25 pregnancies were terminated in Ireland in accordance with the act.

Abortion pills, though illegal, are ordered by thousands of women online (Irish Times) to attempt at-home terminations.

Women can also travel overseas for abortions. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments, added in 1992, guarantee this as a right; they will also be removed if the referendum passes. In 2016, 3,265 women from the Irish Republic traveled to England and Wales, where elective terminations can be carried out up to 24 weeks after conception.

Significant numbers of women also travelled to the Netherlands from Ireland to have abortions in recent years, the Irish Times reported.

Travel for abortion has been legal in Ireland since 1992 when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed following a notorious case of a 14-year-old girl who was pregnant after rape by an adult neighbor.

But rights activists argue that women shouldn’t have to travel to have an abortion and that the Eighth Amendment must be repealed to “respect and protect the lives, health and choices of women in Ireland.”

The referendum

The vote could mark a significant turning point in Irish society. Referendums are a regular part of the political scene in Ireland, as one has to be held to approve every change to the Constitution: there will be seven over the next two years (Irish Times). Many of the proposed votes, including ending the statutory crime of blasphemy, point to societal change.

However, even if the amendment is repealed, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which restricts abortion unless the woman’s life is at risk through illness, an emergency, or suicide, would still be in place. This legislation would also have to be replaced for procedures outside of these cases to be legal.

The government proposed legislation to be passed if the referendum succeeds. The proposed law will render abortion  legal on demand up to 12 weeks with a 72-hour waiting period, available with the assent of two doctors up to 24 weeks, and available indefinitely in the case of fatal fetal abnormalities or risks to the health of the mother. This proposal is still subject to change (Irish Times).

Where do people stand?

Talk of abortion law is highly contentious in the Irish Republic. The debate is often presented as having two opposing stances, or sides: “pro-choice”, favoring more liberalised abortion, and “pro-life.” It is unclear how many people are in the middle, but the current “don’t-knows” hold the key to the referendum outcome.

Yet opinion polls show that a large majority of voters want some change in Irish abortion law.

A poll by Ipsos MRBI from 2017 showed 70 percent would vote in favor of repealing the Eighth Amendment. Only 24 percent of voters favored legalizing terminations in nearly all cases.

According to The Guardian57 percent of the Irish electorate polled favored abortion in cases of rape, fatal fetal abnormalities and if the mother’s life is threatened. Just 10 percent said they did not want a referendum on the topic.

The youth vote will play a key role in the referendum. Students became a focus of some debate about the referendum date after pro-choice activists argued a June vote would limit the number of young people – who travel or work overseas during summer – who could take part.

In a referendum on allowing gay marriage in 2015 (Irish Times), an influx of young Irish expatriates returned home to vote in favor and the 60 percent turnout played a considerable part in the law’s passing (The Guardian). The prime minister said last year that he wanted to hold the referendum in May next year in order to maximize the student vote.

Abortion rights activists believe a woman has the right to choose to have an abortion if she has an unwanted pregnancy. Tens of thousands of people marched in Dublin and outside the Irish embassy in London in September for the March for Choice which annually demands a more liberal abortion regime.

Meanwhile in counter protests, anti-abortion campaigners demanded no further changes be made.

Anti-abortion campaigners, also known as “pro-lifers,” often argue against abortion on the grounds that a life begins at conception. However, not all “pro-lifers” are anti-abortion in all cases and advocate for protection of life at all stages –both mother and fetus. Other arguments against it include that abortion is “destruction of an innocent human being.”

Some anti-abortion beliefs are influenced by religion, which is partly why the procedure has been so controversial in Ireland, with its Roman Catholic history.

Other countries that have restrictive abortion rules tend to be strictly Catholic, such as Malta and South American countries such as Argentina.

While the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are often used in the media, they have been criticized for being loaded. In contrast, “abortion rights” and “anti-abortion” are less politicized terms. Yet some “pro-lifers” also view the term “anti-abortion” as an inaccurate media label.

WikiTribune will continue updating you on this referendum as Ireland moves towards the vote.

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