Next Friday Ireland will hold a historic public referendum on the legal status of abortion in the country. The vote will determine whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which sets the value of an unborn fetus as equal to the life of its mother and has widely been interpreted by Ireland’s legal system as prohibiting abortion in all cases except those in which the mother is at immediate physiological risk of death. It will be the first referendum on the legal status of abortion as a practice since 1983, when the country voted the amendment into law, and is scheduled to take place on Friday, May 25.
“I know this will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make,” Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in a statement officially confirming the referendum at the end of January. “I know it is a very personal and private issue and for most of us it is not a black and white issue, it is one that is grey – the balance between the rights of a pregnant woman and the fetus or unborn.”
If the repeal passes, the constitutional statute will be replaced by a clause enabling the Dáil, Ireland’s lower house of parliament, to enact abortion regulation. The general provision will be instituted in the interim as the government establishes specific guidelines, relying on the advice of the Medical Council.
Though abortion has always been illegal in Ireland, the 1983 referendum codified the ban in the country’s constitution, garnering 67 percent of the vote from 53 percent of the population. But in the decades since, changing attitudes have weakened support for an all-out abortion ban. A poll taken by the Irish Times in January 2018 showed that only 29 percent of respondents still favored keeping the amendment, while 56 percent expressed a desire for some kind of abortion legislation from parliament, which is impossible under the Eighth Amendment.
Varadkar, a general practitioner prior to his election to the Dáil in 2007, said he would strongly campaign for the Eighth Amendment to be repealed, indicating his own evolution on the issue. In 2010, while a junior member of parliament, he opposed legalizing abortion for victims of rape, and as recently as 2014, while serving as Minister of Health, he described himself as “pro-life.”
“I don’t think we can persist with a situation where women in crisis are risking their lives for the use of unregulated medicines,” he said. “And I don’t believe the Constitution is the place for making absolute statements about medical, moral and legal issues.”
However, more recent polls of the Irish public reflect a late-stage surge in “No” votes. As the date of the referendum draws nearer, the margin held by “Yes” voters has grown smaller as previously undecided voters demonstrate a trend toward preserving the status quo: a survey conducted by the Independent in early May showed only 45 percent in support of repeal, with 34 percent against it and 18 percent remaining undecided.
The unexpected sway has been attributed in part to the regulations expected to replace the 35-year-old text. The recent draft of a bill released by the Dáil, under the authority of Minister for Health Simon Coveney, outlines concrete specifics for the first time since the referendum was announced, confirming previously speculative assertions that the new regulations would include abortions upon request up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, only prohibiting them at the 24-week mark, with further permissions in case of risk to the physical or emotional health of the mother.
These regulations reflect current laws in the U.K., but are not embraced wholeheartedly in Ireland, where these considerations are essentially being addressed in depth for the first time. Irish Times columnist Breda O’Brien explained to The Guardian, “Core values have not changed as much as some people think. There is still a huge sense of unease around this.” The additional fear of going too far in the opposite direction gives some citizens pause. “People do not trust the government to make the right decision,” Together for Yes canvasser Tara Deasy noted to the Irish Times. “This has come up over the past couple of weeks.”
Further controversy arose last week with Google’s announcement that all ads regarding the upcoming referendum would be banned from the site’s advertising outlets. The response from the Save the Eighth campaign was one of resentment, with spokesperson John McGuirk categorizing the action as an instance of “foreign interference.” While campaigners can still advertise via Facebook and other channels, an important platform has been cut off at a late stage for both sides, making the recently narrow poll predictions appear a bit more daunting.
Of the tens of thousands of native Irish living outside the country, many are returning home to cast their vote on the emotionally charged issue, no matter their view. Sarah Gillespie, a LoveBoth supporter of Donegal birth living in Pennsylvania, told the Irish Sun, “There are resources provided from both sides of the campaign in order for people to come home. If I had been in a position where I could not afford the flight, I would have sought help. I would have regretted it if I didn’t come home to vote no.”
Dublin-born New York resident Sorcha Lowry elaborated, “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to undo a failed and harmful constitutional experiment. It’s about us creating the Ireland we want to live in and have families in.” ♦