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Ireland votes to repeal abortion ban in historic referendum

Friday’s vote paves the way for legal abortion in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.

ireland, abortion, irish referendum
Pro-repeal campaigner Keishia Taylor celebrating.
Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Eighth Amendment to Ireland’s constitution is one of the most draconian abortion restrictions in the developed world. Irish voters just decided to repeal it.

While votes are still being counted as of Saturday morning, two exit polls showed a huge margin — roughly 70-30 — in favor of repeal. Though exit polls are not always accurate, it is widely seen as implausible they could miss by enough for the amendment to stay in place. A leading anti-repeal group, Save the 8th, has conceded defeat, and Irish politicians are already discussing next steps for moving to a legal abortion regime.

The vote, held on Friday, is a historic victory for Irish feminists, who had been campaigning for the amendment’s repeal ever since it was passed in 1983. Pro-repeal sentiment was especially strong among young and urban voters, suggesting that a new left-leaning and secular majority had supplanted the more conservative Catholic older generation.

The Catholic Church’s influence over Irish politics has been in decline for years now, owing in part to a series of sexual assault and child abuse scandals; this referendum shows that a new secular Ireland is here to stay.

“The biggest change now versus 1983 is the collapse of the Roman Catholic cultural grip across broad swaths of the population,” says Niamh Hardiman, a political scientist at University College Dublin.

It’s important to note that repeal does not mean abortion will automatically become legal. In order for that to happen, Ireland’s parliament will have to pass a law repealing the country’s statutory ban on abortion, which exists separately from the constitutional one, and set up a new system for regulated abortion.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who campaigned for repeal, has already released a draft bill that would remove all restrictions on abortions for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and permit it afterward only under specific circumstances (if the woman’s health were in danger, for example). These rules sound restrictive by US standards, but they are roughly in line with regulations across the European Union. The new rules would be substantially more liberal than current Irish law, which only permits abortion if failing to do so would cause the woman to die.

In the wake of the referendum’s victory, Varadkar’s bill is widely expected to pass — meaning that Irish women, and Ireland as a whole, are about to enter a brand new political era.

Ireland’s journey on abortion, explained

Abortion has been illegal in Ireland since at least 1861, when a ban was imposed by British authorities, and remained illegal after Ireland became independent in the early 20th century. But Ireland only took the extreme step of putting an abortion ban in the constitution in 1983, a reaction to the gains of the feminist movement in both Ireland and the broader Anglophone world.

In 1973, Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that the country’s ban on contraception was unconstitutional and that it violated citizens’ right to privacy. In the US, a similar court ruling on contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut) laid the groundwork for Roe v. Wade, which coincidentally also came down in 1973. Irish Catholic conservatives, looking at both the American case and the wider successes of the Irish feminist movement on issues like equality in the workplace, got spooked.

“There was a fear that a court case taken to the Irish courts, or then the European courts, would liberalize abortion in the same way access to contraceptives had been [liberalized],” Mary McAuliffe, a professor of gender studies at University College Dublin, told me. “And so a campaign began, called the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, after the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 — when the Catholic right felt emboldened.”

In 1983, this idea was put to a national referendum, and what’s now the Eighth Amendment passed by a resounding 67 percent margin. The text of the amendment was very short and very clear: Fetuses have a right to life “equal” to that of the woman’s:

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 result was that Ireland was locked into a draconian abortion prohibition, one that could not constitutionally allow exceptions for rape or even the health of the woman. The only conceivable exception under the text of the Eighth was if the pregnant woman’s very life were at clear and imminent risk.

This strict regulation had a number of unintended consequences. For one, Irish women began flying to Britain (and, in smaller numbers, other European Union countries) to get abortions. Between 1980 and 2016, roughly 170,000 Irish women traveled abroad to get an abortion (the total population of Ireland today is a little under 5 million).

At the same time, Irish society changed dramatically. The influence of the Catholic Church waned significantly, while women made major gains (Ireland has one of the highest rates of women with college degrees in Europe). In this new Ireland, the Eighth Amendment was on less sure footing.

“Ireland really is, for the most part, a secular state,” McAuliffe says. “There is a new generation of women — and men — who are very much influenced by ideas of equality, of feminism.”

The catalyst for a renewed abortion fight was, by all accounts, the tragic 2012 death of a woman named Savita Halappanavar.

Halappanavar, a patient in Galway Hospital, was 17 weeks pregnant when she began to experience serious back pains. Doctors determined that miscarriage was unavoidable, and that the process of miscarriage could lead to a dangerous infection. When Halappanavar and her husband asked for doctors to medically induce the miscarriage, to get the fetus out without risking infection, they were told that Ireland’s abortion law prohibited such a procedure — that Halappanavar’s life wasn’t so obviously at risk as to allow them to terminate the pregnancy.

There was no abortion, and Halappanavar died from sepsis.

An official investigation into her death, released in 2013, concluded that the strict nature of Ireland’s abortion law had, in fact, played some role in tying the doctors’ hands. It suggested that Ireland’s parliament at least consider changing the legal code and even enact “constitutional change” to prevent this from happening.

“There is immediate and urgent requirement for a clear statement of the legal context in which clinical professional judgement can be exercised in the best medical welfare interests of patients,” the report concluded. “The guidance so urged may require legal change.”

The Halappanavar case made international headlines, and galvanized the pro–abortion rights segment of the Irish public. In January 2018, Prime Minister Varadkar vowed to hold a referendum in May on repealing the Eighth Amendment — and followed through on that promise.

Saturday’s results were the culmination of this long process of social change — of the new Ireland triumphing over the old. Ireland’s status as one of the last bastions of traditional social conservatism in the West had already suffered a blow in 2015, when the country voted to legalize same-sex marriage. The repeal of the Eighth Amendment might well be the nail in its coffin.