In 1983, the people of Ireland voted to ban abortion. 35 years later, they took to the polls once again, reversing that decision in a landslide victory.
Though abortion was already illegal in Ireland prior to the 1983 vote, social conservatives feared that a court decision could render that law unconstitutional, much like what happened in the United States with the 1977 Roe v. Wade decision. So in 1983, to prevent the chance of court intervention, Ireland held a public referendum, voting to amend the country’s constitution and adopting the Eighth Amendment, banning abortion in all situations.
In 2017, in response to public pressure, the government announced plans to put this question up for a vote once again. Citizens of Ireland voted on May 25, 2018, and the referendum to lift the ban on abortions won by an impressive margin.
To see the nasty history of the Eighth Amendment, look no further than the story of Savita Halappanavar.
In 2012, 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar went to the hospital 17 weeks pregnant. Her pregnancy had an unforeseen complication, and she was having what’s known as a septic abortion or miscarriage. There was virtually no chance that she’d be able to carry the pregnancy to term, but doctors were prohibited from ending the pregnancy. Doctors tried to induce labor, resulting in her delivering a stillborn fetus. It was too late for her, however, as the sepsis had gotten worse. She died four days later.
Though the country implemented a law the following year designed to carve out narrow exceptions to the abortion ban in cases like Halappanavar’s, abortion rights advocates argued that nothing short of a full repeal would do. Their opinion is shared by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, ruling in 2016 that “the balance that the state party has chosen to strike between protection of the fetus and the rights of the woman in the present case cannot be justified.” Other human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, concur.
Horror stories like Halappanavar’s are all too common. In 2007, officials tried to prevent a 17-year-old known as “Miss D” from leaving the country to obtain an abortion after learning that her fetus would not survive birth. In 2014, a teenage asylum-seeker known as “Miss Y” was subjected to borderline inhumane treatment after learning that she was pregnant, eventually undergoing a coerced Caesarian section. These cases aren’t about protecting some notion of “life”; they’re about control and forcing women to experience absolute nightmare scenarios.
Bor no ban, abortion has always been accessible for the well-off. The two-tiered nature of this is part of the problem.
Since 1980, 170,000 Irish women have traveled to a foreign country for an abortion, and Ireland makes up nearly 70% of all non-resident abortions in the United Kingdom. Repealing the Eighth Amendment is as much about providing access to all women equally as it is about human rights. Access to health care should not hinge on whether somebody has the time and money to take a multi-day international trip.
Though Ireland has voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, there’s still a bit more work to be done before abortion will be legalized — and would still be rife with restrictions.
The next step is for Irish lawmakers to enact new guidelines on abortion. One popular proposal that’s been floating around would make abortion legal in all cases during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Between 12 and 24 weeks, abortions would be limited to instances where the life of the mother or long-term viability of the fetus were in danger. After 24 weeks, only pregnancies involving fatal fetal abnormalities would qualify for an abortion. Additionally, people seeking abortions would be subject to mandatory counseling and waiting periods.
It’s hardly the free-for-all “no” campaigners would have had you believe. It’s also short of what “yes” campaigners would hope for. Still, it’s a positive step forward for the country, and it will save lives.