Written by Artemis Walsh
Editorial Note: This was written pre-vote, and we decided to keep it in its original form while including an Addendum at the end.
On May 25, 2018, millions of Irish people will go to the polls to vote in a referendum on the most contentious topic in Irish politics this decade: abortion. No matter the outcome, this referendum will mark a new chapter in this debate within Ireland and resound in abortion debates around the world.
The bill was passed by both houses of the Irish Oireachtas (parliament) and is now in its final stage: a general referendum to be voted on by the Irish public.
The referendum focuses on the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution. Currently, the Eighth Amendment, “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” In so many words, it makes abortion illegal outside of extreme circumstances, giving Ireland the distinction of having some of the toughest abortion laws in Europe. Women who had abortions could face life in prison until 2013 when the maximum penalty was shortened to 14 years.
This amendment was ratified in 1983, brought to power in another referendum. Even back then, only 30 years ago, the Catholic Church had immense power in Ireland, and were one of the main campaigners for the referendum that created the amendment.
However, the Church has been losing political ground in Ireland for decades. Despite an 78% Catholic population on paper, it is estimated that only 48% of the population goes to weekly mass. Seminary attendance in Ireland is plummeting. In 2015, a referendum vote saw the legalization of gay marriage. The Church fought against this, and the vote was seen as much a defeat for the Church as a victory for LGBT people.
Ireland’s two main left-wing parties (Sinn Féin and Labour) have come out in strong support of repeal. Both have contributed to the massive wave of posters put up all around Ireland.
Of Ireland’s two largest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (both center-right in political ideology) have not given an official position on the Eighth Amendment, but have both strongly stated they will support the result of the referendum.
The leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadkar, has been an open opponent of abortion in the past, but once elected Taoiseach (the Irish word for prime minister) he was the one who called for the referendum.
The full text of the referendum itself poses two questions. The first would repeal the Eighth Amendment itself. The second would legalize unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. This 12 week window is common practice throughout European countries.
As referendum day draws closer and closer, signs have been popping up everywhere in Dublin, and across the country, urging people to vote either “Yes” or “No.”
In the city of Dublin, signs from both camps appear everywhere, usually wrapped around street lights and signs. Some poles have three more more signs, as if the camps are competing for every last lamppost.
However, outside of Dublin, fewer and fewer Yes posters have been seen. No posters overwhelmingly cover the countryside. The campaign seems to be focusing on the major cities, such as Dublin and Cork. Conversely, the Yes vote has a massive social media backing in the form of the “Repeal the 8th” campaign, a slogan which has become the face of the pro-choice movement in Ireland.
The eyes of anyone with a stake in abortion are focusing on Ireland. With the country’s conservative reputation, yet another referendum in favor of social progress could be seen as an immense victory for pro-choice movements globally.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that privacy rights in the Fourth Amendment extended to a woman’s right to make a choice about abortion, enshrining a woman’s right to have (or not have) an abortion. However, state and local legislatures have spent the last 40 years slowly and systematically dismantling, in legislature and on the ground, women’s access to abortion.
A referendum in Ireland would mean that pro-choice legislation was democratically brought into the country by the people of Ireland, and would be a breath of fresh air for the American pro-choice movement.
Conversely, a pro-life victory would be seen by the pro-life movement in America as a major moment, and might even bolster actions such as dismantling Planned Parenthood or closing abortion clinics. But at the end of the day, it will be the voice and vote of the Irish people that plots the course of Ireland.
UPDATE: The referendum has passed, with 66.4% for Yes, 33.4% for No, and an incredibly high 64% turnout. Ireland’s government plans to introduce new legislation soon.