Everything you need to know about Ireland’s historic abortion referendum

Seen as the "vote of a generation," the poll is a rare opportunity for the country repeal the 33-year-old amendment.

Pro-choice activists call for repealing Ireland's abortion law while dressed as "Handmaidens." (CREDIT: Niall Carson/PA Images/Getty Images)
Pro-choice activists call for repealing Ireland's abortion law while dressed as "Handmaidens." (CREDIT: Niall Carson/PA Images/Getty Images)

As President Donald Trump is making to even harder to get reproductive health care in the United States, Ireland, one of the more conservative countries in Europe, will head to the polls on Friday to vote on repealing its anti-abortion law, enshrined in its constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Make no mistake, this is a huge deal for the small Emerald Isle. Campaigners on both sides have been working hard for months to turn the vote in their favor, and Irish citizens in the diaspora have flown home for the vote.

Meanwhile, anti-choice groups and activists from the United States are lending their support to those who want to save the Eighth Amendment.

Activists from the "Love Both, Vote No" campaign, including politician Mattie McGrath (C), hold placards urging people to vote 'no' in the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. (CREDIT: Barry Cronin/AFP/Getty Images)
Activists from the "Love Both, Vote No" campaign, including politician Mattie McGrath (C), hold placards urging people to vote 'no' in the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. (CREDIT: Barry Cronin/AFP/Getty Images)

BuzzFeed also reported that apps used by Ireland’s two largest anti-abortion campaigns, Save the 8th and LoveBoth Project, “were developed by the same Washington, DC–based company, Political Social Media LLC, which specialises in building digital campaigning tools for conservative, religious, and anti-abortion groups.”

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A deeply traditional, Catholic country, Ireland is among the few countries in the European Union that do not allow women and gender minorities to receive an abortion at their own request in the first trimester.

What is Ireland’s Eighth Amendment?

The Eighth Amendment was added to the Irish Constitution in 1983 by referendum, and allows women and gender minorities access to abortion only in rare situations, all of which have to be verified by multiple doctors before the procedure is carried out.

An abortion is allowed if:

  • A patient’s health is in danger owing to illness.
  • A patient’s health in danger due to an urgent illness (or “physical illness in emergency”).
  • A patient has been verified to be suicidal by three medical practitioners (one obstetrician and two psychiatrists, all working at approved facilities) and that risk “can only be averted” by carrying out the abortion and if the procedure can be carried out at “an appropriate institution.” Lawmakers have made several attempts to remove worry over suicide as a reason to allow abortion.

Aside from forcing women and gender minorities to go through pregnancies and births, the Eighth Amendment also made it illegal for people to go elsewhere to seek abortions.

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In 1992, the case of a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after she was raped rocked Ireland and prompted changes to the laws.

Known only as “Case X,” the girl decided to travel to the United Kingdom to get an abortion. Her family contacted the police asking if they could perform a DNA test after the abortion to determine the identity of the rapist, and that’s when the country’s Attorney General got involved. The High Court blocked the girl from traveling, which made her suicidal.

Only then was she allowed to get an abortion.

Case X prompted protest and debate throughout the country, ultimately leading the to the 13th and 14 Amendments in the Irish constitution, which allows people to travel abroad for abortions and for information about those services to be distributed within Ireland. Since 1980, around 170,000 women and girls have left Ireland to get an abortion in other countries, mostly in the United Kingdom.

The cost of leaving Ireland for an abortion in the United Kingdom, though, can be prohibitive for many people — conservatively estimated at anywhere from $1,000 to $2,300.

Savita Halappanavar’s image is being held up by demonstrators calling for repealing the eighth amendment in Dublin, Ireland. (CREDIT: Niall Carson/PA Images/Getty Images)
Savita Halappanavar’s image is being held up by demonstrators calling for repealing the eighth amendment in Dublin, Ireland. (CREDIT: Niall Carson/PA Images/Getty Images)

Another case that brought Ireland’s abortion debate back into the focus was that of Savita Halappanavar. In 2012, Savita, 31, and her husband, Praveen, were expecting their first child when she began suffering a miscarriage.

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Doctors in the Galway hospital she went to refused to perform an abortion, even as the miscarriage was inevitable and Savita was in a staggering amount of pain.

Having gone into septic shock, Savita died of a cardiac arrest one week after going to the hospital. Her parents are championing repealing the Eighth Amendment.

What happens if the Eighth Amendment is repealed?

By law, if the amendment is repealed, abortion in the first trimester would become legal in Ireland, though it’s unclear how long it would take to outfit more clinics with the ability to do the procedure.

The country’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar said that the new legislation would be published by the summer and in place by the end of the year.

Under a proposed draft of the law (things could still change) abortions would be allowed in “early pregnancy” or the first trimester (with a 72-hour waiting period), and not only in rape and incest cases. It will also be allowed after the first trimester if the health of the person carrying the (non-viable) fetus is in danger, if there’s an immediate/urgent risk to the person carrying the fetus, or if the fetus is unlikely to survive until birth or is likely to die soon after. 

Varadkar, incidentally, is campaigning to get the “yes” vote out in favor of the repeal.

“On Sunday if there is a yes vote it will still be the same country that it is today but it will be a country that is a little bit more compassionate, one that recognises the realities and the problems women face,” said Varadkar.

It also remains to be seen if like the United States, those seeking abortions will be targeted by anti-choice activists outside clinics, and if the repeal will face legal challenges down the line, as Roe v. Wadethe landmark case that legalized abortion, is experiencing now.

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Here, even though abortion is legal, states can impose their own laws, add their hurdles and requirements, and make it all but impossible for women and gender minorities to access the procedure.

What if the repeal attempt fails?

It’s taken decades for Ireland for pro-choice activists to bring this repeal to a vote, and the odds of it happening again any time soon are slim. That’s why the Irish are referring to this referendum as a vote of a generation.

Prime Minister Varadkar has also said that if voters choose to keep the Eighth Amendment, there would not be another referendum (presumably, while he’s still in office) and said that people seeking chemical abortions (via pill) in Ireland after a “no” vote on repeal would face criminal charges.