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Ireland voted May 25 to repeal the 8th Amendment to its constitution, effectively paving the way for legal abortion in the traditionally Catholic country. With voter turnout up to 70 percent in some counties, two-thirds of voters said “Yes” to repeal the amendment, returning power to legislate on abortion to the government and stripping the unborn of their rights.
In 1983, as many Western European countries were legalizing abortion, Ireland passed the 8th Amendment by a two-thirds majority. The amendment, which embedded equal legal rights for an unborn child and her mother into the republic’s constitution, was an example and inspiration to pro-life movements worldwide for 35 years.
While many Irish women “traveled” to the U.K. for an abortion, pro-life groups said the 8th Amendment had saved over 100,000 Irish lives by giving a mother time to rethink a decision to abort and find needed support. Pro-abortion forces lobbied since 1983, but the last 10 years saw an even greater push to legalize abortion. After Savita Halappanavar died of pregnancy-related sepsis in a Galway hospital in 2014, pro-abortion groups quickly politicized the tragedy for the cause of liberalizing abortion access.
Independent investigations found hospital malpractice—not lack of access to abortion—caused Halappanavar’s death, but the case garnered public sympathy for “hard cases” that heavily influenced the May vote’s outcome. Another highly publicized case involved a minor rape victim restricted from traveling to England for an abortion.
Grassroots pro-life efforts faced an uphill battle, with a Yes campaign led by the government and heavily supported by the media. The No side also suffered from vandalism of posters and took a heavy blow a few weeks before the vote when Facebook and Google banned referendum ads. Television ads were not permitted.
Media in Ireland and abroad, meanwhile, portrayed the Roman Catholic Church as archaic and its influence as waning, especially in light of sexual scandals involving clergy in recent years. The church, while officially against abortion, was not a strong voice in the debate. Many saw a yes vote as a means of more closely aligning the country with the EU in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Amnesty International poured funds into the country in favor of repeal.
Up to the day of the vote, polls predicted an almost even split, making the subsequent 2-to-1 margin all the more disappointing for the No side. The day after, the Save the 8th organization vowed to fight on and posted on its website: “What Irish voters did yesterday is a tragedy of historic proportions. However, a wrong does not become right simply because a majority support it.” Spokeswoman Mary Kenny—who credits the 8th Amendment with saving her own daughter’s life—said pro-life organizations realize their voice is now needed more than ever. They are already making plans to make crisis pregnancy counseling available in each county.
As he campaigned, Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar promised to bring legislation before Parliament before year’s end, but in the days following the vote Health Minister Simon Harris vowed to introduce the new laws before the summer vacation. The proposed legislation would allow abortion on demand up to 12 weeks, and up to six months in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality, and the “health of the mother.” Because the definition of “health” remains vague, Irish pro-lifers fear it eventually may include mental health and depression, widening the door to a more liberal abortion policy.
While The Irish Times said that the Yes victory was definitive and called for an end to the fight, pro-life legislators vow to fight the abortion laws in Parliament.
In the wake of Ireland’s vote, pro-abortion forces demanded that Northern Ireland also legalize abortion. While politically part of the U.K., Northern Ireland has pro-life laws. In early June the U.K. Supreme Court dismissed an appeal to overturn the laws protecting Northern Ireland’s unborn children.