Ireland abortion referendum: What is the eighth amendment and what happens if it is repealed?

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On 25 May 2018, Ireland will hold a referendum on the eighth amendment of the country’s constitution, which effectively bans abortion. If the electorate repeals the eighth it would allow for the government to legislate on terminations.

What is the eighth amendment?

Abortion was already illegal in Ireland under the Offences against the Person Act of 1861. In 1983, pro-life activists who feared that this could be changed set about securing protection for the unborn in the constitution, by lobbying the government for a referendum.

A vote was then held on 7 September 1983 which proposed adding an eighth amendment to the constitution of Ireland. It read 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.”

The referendum was passed, with 66.9 per cent voting Yes, and 33.1 per cent voting No. The turnout was 53 per cent, amounting to around 1.2 million people. Only five constituencies returned No votes, including four in Dublin.

This effectively gave equal rights to the mother and the unborn, all but banning abortion.

Case X and the referendums of 1992 and 2002

In 1992, “Case X” marked a landmark moment in Ireland’s abortion journey. A 14-year-old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape claimed to be suicidal after she was prevented from travelling to Britain for an abortion. The Supreme Court then decided that the girl had the right to an abortion, with the eighth amendment considered, since there was a “real and substantial risk” to her life – and that of the unborn.

This sparked great debate around the country, and highlighted problems with the eighth amendment. As a result, three referendums were held simultaneously on the same day in November 1992.

The 12th amendment attempted to remove suicide as grounds for an abortion, but was defeated. The 13th and 14th amendments acknowledged that women could travel abroad for terminations, and that information about services in other countries could be made available to them. These were both passed and added to the constitution, effectively acknowledging that despite the ban, many women simply went abroad for terminations.

In 2002, another referendum again attempted to remove suicide as grounds for an abortion in Ireland, but it was rejected, with 50.42 per cent voting No.

The road to reform

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland was violating the European Convention on Human Rights, citing the lack of clarity available to women on what circumstances would constitute grounds for a legal abortion.

In 2012, the case of Savita Halappanavar caused shock waves around Ireland and the world after the dentist died in a Galway hospital due to complications from a septic miscarriage, which took days to unfold. Despite her requests during the ordeal, she was denied an abortion.

Finally, in 2013, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed into law, defining the circumstances in which abortion could be carried out legally. This consisted of three scenarios: risk of loss of life from physical illness, risk of loss of life from physical illness in emergency, or risk of loss of life from suicide.

What happens if Ireland repeals the eighth?

Ireland still has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment – which effectively has its roots as far back as 1983 – has picked up speed in recent years, buoyed by a new generation of feminists, a growing appreciation of the wider need for equality and rights, and the success of the same sex marriage referendum in 2015.

On 25 May, Ireland has a historic opportunity to change the country’s abortion law. Voters will be asked if they want to repeal the eighth amendment, and allow the government to legislate on terminations.

If Ireland votes Yes, the existing article of the constitution which was inserted in 1983 – and the 1992 additions – will be replaced with this text:

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

For its part, the government is proposing that it would legislate to permit abortion in cases where there is a risk to the life of the woman, a medical emergency or a fatal foetal abnormality, or up to 12 weeks without justification.

The two main parties of Ireland, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are not taking official positions on the referendum, but politicians are permitted to campaign on a personal basis, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who supports a Yes vote. Both Sinn Fein and the Labour party are supporting Yes as party policy.

If Ireland votes No, the eighth amendment will remain in place.

You can follow all the developments in the debate, as well as the latest polls, on The Independent’s live blog

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