The Irish abortion referendum: dividing a nation

After the recent Irish abortion referendum, Laura Hanton takes a look at how the fiercely contested vote divided the country

The results of the Irish abortion referendum on May 25th revealed that the Yes campaign, in favour of legalising abortion, had won by an unprecedented majority, securing 66.4% of the vote, with a turnout of 64.1% of the electorate.

Under current law, abortion in Ireland is illegal in almost all cases. This is due to the now notorious Eighth Amendment that was added to the Irish constitution in 1983, recognising an equal right to life for both mother and child. This means that, legally, a foetus has no lesser human rights than its mother, rendering termination of pregnancy akin to murder and punishable by a sentence of up to 14 years in prison. The only exception to this law is if the mother’s life is in danger, including if she is deemed at risk of suicide by three separate specialists.

Whilst the vast majority of European countries, including France and Germany, allow abortions up until 12 weeks of pregnancy, the UK is notable for providing the most leniency, permitting terminations within the first 24 weeks. Because of this marked tolerance, it has been claimed that up to 170,000 Irish women have travelled to the UK in desperation since the 1980s, seeking a legal end to their unwanted pregnancy.

“Ireland has been pummelled with arguments for and against”

The current debate runs deep, with conflict over Ireland’s national identity rising to the fore. Campaigning has been fierce, ferocious and emotionally charged, with proponents of either side coming forward to voice their opinions. The whole of Ireland has been pummelled with arguments for and against, and campaigns became particularly urgent days before the referendum took place, with revelations that up to 17% of the population remained undecided.

The No campaign, those against the reform in abortion law, have a history of decades of illegality to work with: the issue is one ingrained in Irish culture. They claim that abortion does not help women; it hurts them. They believe that the fact one in every five pregnancies in the UK ends in abortion is ‘a shocking and enduring tragedy’ and such a culture should not be fostered in Ireland. They argue that the legalisation would add additional strain to a health service already at breaking point, and it would simply give medical professionals a licence to kill.

The campaign in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment position themselves as pro-choice, arguing that the ‘archaic and dangerous law’ infringes on women’s rights and denies them access to basic health care. They condemn the current law which forces rape victims or women carrying a foetus with a fatal anomaly to endure the pregnancy. And with at least two women every day taking an abortion pill alone, deprived of medical support, campaigners believe that without legalisation, unsafe and unregulated abortions will continue to happen all over Ireland.

“The referendum has clearly been a ground-breaking one”

So what will happen now Yes has won? Ireland’s health minister, Simon Harris, has vowed to begin the process of legislation as soon as 29th May. The article forbidding abortion will be removed and replaced with an enabling provision until official legislation is passed. Under this proposed law, abortions will be allowed until 12 weeks of pregnancy. A three-day waiting period between the woman first visiting a medical practitioner and her being given the abortion pill will be enforced. Abortions will also be legal if the foetus is found to be suffering a fatal abnormality, in which case a termination will be permitted even beyond the 24th week of pregnancy.

The referendum has clearly been a ground-breaking one in Ireland, with the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, deeming the outcome the result of a ‘quiet revolution’. Although many remain opposed to the legalisation and tensions are bound to run high in the coming weeks and months, it seems history has well and truly been made.

Laura Hanton

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Featured image courtesy of Sinn Féin on Flickr. Image licence found here.


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