Are You Clued Up On Ireland’s Abortion Referendum?

Are You Clued Up On Ireland’s Abortion Referendum?

May 25th marks a monumental moment in Ireland’s history, as its residents have the opportunity to vote to get rid of the eight amendment, which prevents women in the country from getting an abortion, for the first time in 35 years. Not up to speed? Here’s what you need to know…

What is the Eighth Amendment?

The eighth amendment of the Constitution Act 1983 gives recognition to the rights of the unborn child, providing them with the same rights as the mother. This ruling therefore means that it’s almost impossible for women to have a legal abortion in Ireland. In the 35 years since the last vote to keep the eighth amendment, more than 170,000 women have had to leave Ireland in order to obtain an abortion, with most travelling to England for the procedure.

The amendment makes abortion illegal unless the mother’s life is at risk. This means that unless there’s a risk of loss of life of the mother from physical illness (which must be agreed upon by two medical practitioners), or there is a risk of loss of life from suicide (which must be approved by two psychiatrists, one obstetrician/gynaecologist and a GP), she won’t be granted an abortion.

Abortion has been a criminal offence in Ireland since 1861. The 1983 vote saw 67% of the Irish population in favour of keeping abortion illegal and 33% against, and there has only been one change to the ruling since then. In 1992, a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by her neighbour was prevented from leaving the country to have an abortion. After public outcry from Irish women, who saw the imprisonment of a 14-year-old and the ban on an abortion after a rape as deeply disturbing, the practice of forbidding women to travel for abortions was reversed.

When is the referendum being held?

The referendum is being held on Friday, 25th May across Ireland. You must be over 18 to be able to vote.

Irish prime minister Leo Varafkar announced the referendum date in late March. “However difficult, I believe the time has come to allow the people to make this decision,” he said in January. “The question has to be a Yes or No one: do we reform our abortion laws or do we leave them as they are?”

Why do we need to repeal the eighth amendment?

Abortion has become a civil rights issue for more progressive generations who want to make the procedure legal in the country. The eighth amendment has long drawn criticism from international groups such as the UN and Amnesty International for its inhumane treatment of women.

Irish women risk their lives in order to get the treatment they deserve – and often with dire consequences. In 2012 Savita Halappanavar, a Galway-based dentist, died of sepsis during a miscarriage at home after being denied an abortion.

And those that don’t result in death can be put through hell; when doctors told Claire Cullen-Delson in 2015 that her pregnancy wasn't viable due to a chromosomal disorder she requested a termination, but was denied it under Ireland's abortion laws. She was forced to give birth to her stillborn daughter who had died in the womb (she documented her experiences in a diary for Broadly).

In 2014, Miss Y, a suicidal teenage asylum seeker and rape victim was refused an abortion in 2014 and was forced to carry her pregnancy through to full term, eventually giving birth via C-section. The same year, a young brain-dead woman was kept alive against her family’s wishes so her body could carry her baby to full-term.

And if this wasn’t enough, those who do successfully take matters into their own hands risk spending 14 years in jail for self-inducing. In fact, a 21-year-old Northern Irish woman who bought abortion pills over the internet to induce a miscarriage was given a suspended prison sentence in 2016, after her housemates reported her to authorities.

Just because abortion is illegal, it doesn’t mean women aren’t having them – it just makes the whole process more dangerous and lonely. Research suggests around five Irish women a day are terminating pregnancies at home with drugs bought online. The pills – first mifepristone and then misoprostol – are taken in two parts and induce a miscarriage when taken up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy. Online, pills can cost as little as £50 and, in some cases, women are simply asked to donate between 70 and 90 euros.

Due to the criminal risk that self-aborting carries, some choose to use natural, more inconspicuous methods to help induce a miscarriage which come without the danger of prosecution, including large quantities of vitamin C, parsley inserted into the vagina as a pessary, and emmenagogue herbs such as black cohosh – but these uncontrolled and medically unapproved methods also come with their own set of problems (You can read more about this here).

What is the outcome looking like?

The eighth amendment is a law that can only be repealed by public vote, and with the stifling power of the Catholic Church waning – in 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage through the popular vote – a ‘yes’ vote is a definite possibility.

‘Yes’ voters are feeling optimistic about a victory on Friday, as young, progressive pro-choicers prepare to vote on the subject for the first time. The crusade for a woman’s autonomy over her own body has picked up speed in recent years, pushed by newer generations’ support of equality on all levels. Since the last vote in ’83, there is whole new crop of young people – both women and men – who support the rights of women and their independence, and it will be the first time they have been allowed to have a say on such a ruling. In fact, there’s no one in Ireland under the age of 52 that has had a chance to vote on this before.

Of course, there’s still a strong amount of support for the pro-life group, too. More traditional voters tend to populate the ‘no’ vote, buoyed by those who see the ban as an attack on Ireland’s Catholicism. While on social media the ‘yes’ campaign seems far more popular – pro-choice group Together for Yes has 15,000 followers on Twitter, whilst pro-life group SaveEightSupports has just 567, and thousands of people still turned out for the Save the Eighth rally in Dublin earlier this year.

Still, repeal the eighth has strong backing from influential global organisations; in 2016, the United Nations ruled that the criminalisation of abortion in Ireland was a human rights violation. And so it seems like the legalisation of abortion could be a very real possibility for the country. In fact, in a poll conducted by the Irish Times, 65% said they would vote in favour of access to abortion up to a 12-week limit.

What will happen if the eighth amendment is repealed?

Ireland still has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. If Ireland votes to repeal the eighth, the existing article in the constitution will be replaced with the following passage: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

The government is proposing that, in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, abortion will be permitted in cases where there is a risk to the life of the woman, a medical emergency or fatal foetal abnormality, or up to 12 weeks without justification.

Who’s supporting the movement?

There are plenty of celebs joining the momentum to repeal the eighth. Irish singer Hozier posed for photos for, in support of the movement, and Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy outed himself as a pro-choicer at a repeal the eighth march back in 2016. Even American Friends actress Courtney Cox recently tweeted her support, sharing a link to an account created by pro-choice group Actors For Yes with the caption “Repeal the eighth!!!” to her 1.11 million followers in early May.

Earlier this week, Ed Sheeran criticised pro-lifers for the use of his song ‘Small Bump’ in their campaigns. In his Instagram stories, he wrote: “I’ve been informed that my song Small Bump is being used to promote the pro-life campaign, and I feel it’s important to let you know I have not given approval for this use, and it does not reflect what the song is about.”

What can you do to help?

There’s plenty you can do to help the cause, even if you’re not an Irish citizen. For those who are Irish but live abroad, your right to vote depends on how long you have lived outside the country. Under  Irish citizens overseas retain full voting rights for a period of 18 months, should they intend to return to Ireland within that time frame.

Those on an Erasmus exchange programme with university might be eligible for a postal vote, but most will have to vote in person in Ireland. If you’re not already signed up you won’t be eligible to vote as the deadline has now passed.
For Irish people that can’t vote but have family and friends that can, the London Irish Abortion Rights campaign produced a guide to talking about the eighth amendment with them. You still have time to debate the facts, and hold the power to potentially change someone’s mind.

If you’re not Irish but would still like to help, you can donate to the repeal the eighth campaign.Give your support to ‘yes’ voters by tweeting with the hashtag #RepealThe8th. You can also join a pro-choice group – have a look at the ones you can partner with here.

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