Ireland will vote tomorrow, Friday, May 25, on whether to repeal the eighth amendment of their constitution, which is effectively a ban on abortion. Ireland still has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, despite other progressive political changes that have occurred in recent years. In 2015, for example, same-sex marriage became legal in Ireland, also through a referendum voted on by the public. If the country does change its laws, it will be a huge, history-making event, the culmination of decades of lobbying by feminists and women’s rights advocates. Here’s everything you need to know about the referendum:
What is the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution?
The eighth amendment was added to Ireland’s constitution in 1983, through referendum. Abortion was already illegal in Ireland under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which was an act of Parliament passed when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. In 1983, anti-abortion activists successfully lobbied to get the language added to the Irish constitution itself, the language of which reads as follows: “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.” 66.9 percent of people who voted cast their votes affirmatively for the law, which effectively gives mother and unborn child equal legal rights.
What are the exceptions to the eighth amendment?
The abortion ban in Ireland is suspended if pregnancy “poses a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.” In 1992, changes to the law were prompted by “Case X,” an anonymous 14-year-old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape, and who was said to be suicidal. Three referendums were held simultaneously to determine whether she could have an abortion because of the risk the pregnancy to her life: The 12th amendment, removing suicidal risk as a legal reason for abortion, was defeated; a 13th and 14th, which were passed, said that women could travel abroad for abortions and that they could learn about these outside services in Ireland. About 10 women make the journey from Ireland to the U.K. every day to have an abortion.
What led to this month’s referendum?
International pressure has mounted to change Ireland’s abortion law. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland was violating the European Convention on Human Rights. That resulted in the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which spelled out three scenarios in which abortion was legal due to risk of loss of life: physical illness, physical illness in an emergency, or suicide. Irish feminists have long lobbied for abortion rights, and achieved other progressive legislative victories since the 1983 amendment was put into place, like legalizing divorce and contraception.
When will we know the results of the referendum?
Some parts of the country began early voting on Thursday, May 24. Voting takes place over the next day, Friday, May 25 and results will be officially called on Saturday, May 26.
What happens if Ireland repeals the eighth amendment?
If Ireland votes yes, the new law will say that “provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.” The proposed legislation would allow abortion if there there is a risk to the life of the woman, a medical emergency, or a fatal fetal abnormality, or up to 12 weeks without justification, but the debate will continue on the details after the referendum occurs.