‘Repeal the eighth!’: Will Ireland liberalize abortion laws in May?

A long-awaited referendum on abortion is due this May, which will offer citizens the chance to repeal the constitution’s eighth amendment and liberalize Ireland’s strict legislation.

The country’s abortion laws are among the harshest in the European Union and have been denounced as ‘cruel and inhumane’ by the UN’s human rights committee.

Abortion has been illegal since the republic was established in 1919, but the ‘right to life of the unborn’ was only enshrined in the constitution when the eighth amendment was passed in 1983. Even in clear-cut situations where continuing pregnancy places the mother’s life in immediate danger, abortion is not readily offered.

One such case, in 2012, revived what had been until then a dormant pro-choice movement. Savita Halappanavar was denied an abortion in a Dublin hospital after a miscarriage had begun but a foetal heartbeat could still be detected; she died six days later from septicaemia. Her avoidable death caused public outcry and grassroots action, including campaigns for the upcoming referendum to be held. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and the leader of the opposition Michael Martin have both come out in favour of repealing the eighth amendment, despite sharing socially conservative and anti-abortion views.

The backlash from Ireland’s well-funded pro-life groups has been predictably hostile. Youth Defence is a conservative Catholic anti-abortion organization that made headlines in 2013 by parking one of their advertising vans outside a rape crisis centre. One of their controversial campaigns in the run-up to the referendum features a photograph of a child with Down’s syndrome with the caption: ‘90 per cent of babies diagnosed with Down’s syndrome in Britain are aborted.’ The charity Down Syndrome Ireland said that it was ‘very disrespectful to both children and their families’.

As both campaigns heat up in their final weeks, there is one demographic particularly looking forward to having its say: the thousands of women who have been forced to travel to Britain for abortion services. Maria, from Wexford, southeast Ireland, is one such woman. Since the referendum was called, she has been doorstepping and campaigning in her town square every weekend. ‘I had no choice when I was pregnant,’ she says. ‘But by the time my daughter is grown up she will have one.’