On 29 January, the government in the Republic of Ireland announced a referendum for May 2018 on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution.
Put in place in October 1983, the amendment “recognizes” the life of the embryo or fetus as equal to that of the pregnant woman. A woman may only terminate her pregnancy if her life is at risk. If this is not the case, she may face up to 14 years in prison for having an abortion. Since the passing of the Eight Amendment 35 years ago, approximately 200, 000 Irish women have travelled to England and Wales in order to perform safe abortions.
For those who are pro-choice on the issue of abortion, Ireland has long been seen as an anachronism. In this western European democracy, divorce was outlawed until 1996, while same-sex marriage was made legal only two years ago, also through a national referendum. Writing for The Guardian on 3 January, journalist Kevin McKenna describes Ireland as “what is often perceived as the world’s most Catholic country,” and that with this referendum the “old order” is convulsing with the separation of church and state.
If the amendment is not repealed in May, “it must only be a matter of time before it is,” McKenna argued.
This potential step towards liberalization and equality has split the Irish population, but also made prominent politicians alter or further explain their stance: Ireland’s taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who declared himself “pro-life” only three years ago, asked the Irish people to “trust women” during the speech in which he announced the referendum.
Sinn Fein’s new leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said her party will be “knocking on doors” campaigning for repeal. While the anti-abortion group, The Pro-Life Campaign, recently told Irish Times that they were “confident about the forthcoming referendum,” recent polls suggest a two to one lead in favour of the repeal side.
It seems likely that come May, Ireland will join the ranks of the 200 other countries that offer women secure access to abortion. It has been suggested that age will play a role in the forthcoming referendum, given that no voter under the age of 52 has ever had a chance to vote on this issue.
However, some pro-life campaigns say they have strong youth followings. Abortion is still a contested and sensitive subject.
It will be up to the Irish people to decide on this question, and it may herald the end of the Eighth Amendment.