It is less than a month until voters in Ireland will cast their ballots on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution and legalise abortion. Here is what you need to know about the upcoming referendum.


Abortion was illegal in Ireland under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, enacted whilst the country was still under British rule. After independence, the law remained in force and provisions on abortion were not repealed until 2013.

The prohibition of abortion caused great hardship for Irish women in the early 20th century, especially after the passing of legislation in 1929 which banned contraception. In the 1930s, over 100 Irish women died each year due to unsafe backstreet abortions. The case of R v Browne (1938) in England, which ruled that emotional trauma of a pregnant woman was a defence for the termination of a pregnancy, resulted in a number of pregnant Irish women crossing the Irish Sea for abortions. This increased following the Abortion Act of 1967 in Great Britain, which made access to treatment easier for Irish women. Rates of infanticide, which were high at the time, fell dramatically as a result.

The pro-choice movement grew in the 1970s and 80s, following notable cases were pregnant women were refused treatment for other ailments due to their pregnancy. One of these was Sheila Hodgers who died in 1983 after being refused treatment for cancer whilst pregnant – it was claimed that Catholic doctors at the hospital did not want to harm the foetus. Two days after giving birth prematurely to a baby girl, who died immediately afterwards, Sheila passed away from cancer in her neck, legs, spine, ribs and liver – she was 27.

Following a judicial ruling in Ireland that would allow abortion, a pro-life group called the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign formed and lobbied the major parties ahead of the 1981 general election to pass a bill to amend the constitution to prevent the country’s Supreme Court to interpret the constitution as giving Irish women the right to have an abortion. The proposed Eighth Amendment was put to a national referendum in 1983 and 66.9% of voters voted in favour, following vocal support from the Catholic Church. As a result, the following was added to the Irish Constitution:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

After the anti-abortion lobby group Society for the Protection of Unborn Children fought in court to prevent access to information being given to women about access to services in the UK for Irish women seeking a termination, a referendum on a new amendment went to a vote, along with two others, in 1992.

Voters approved the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which specified that abortion would not limit freedom of travel from Ireland to countries where someone could get an abortion and specified that citizens have the freedom to learn and pursue abortion services from other countries. A third amendment, proposing that suicide is not a significant threat to justify abortion, was rejected. Following the referenda, the text of the Constitution referencing abortion currently reads:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.

More recently, protests demanding change to Ireland’s abortion laws took place in 2012 following the death of 31 year old dentist Savita Halappanavar. Halappanavar was diagnosed with a miscarriage, but her request for an abortion was rejected as the foetus’ heart was still beating. As a result, she developed sepsis and died. The following year, a new law regarding abortion was passed, including a provision that allowed abortion only if there is a severe and substantial risk to life of the mother. Calls to repeal the Eighth Amendment grew louder following the 2013 law.

Last year, upon taking office as Taioseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar announced plans to introduce legislation to carry out a referendum on legalising abortion in 2018. Should voters approve the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, references to abortion in the Constitution would be removed and replaced with:

Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.

Voters will have their say on May 25th.

Who’s campaigning for and against?

Image result for together for yes

The biggest group campaigning to repeal the 8th Amendment is Together for Yes, a group bringing together a variety of pressure groups and organisations, including the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment and the Abortion Rights Campaign, among many others. Formed last month, the campaign launched a crowd-funding campaign which met its goal of €50,000 within hours. As of this week, the campaign surpassed €500,000.

A number of Ireland’s political parties are also calling for voters to repeal the Eighth Amendment, including the Green Party, the Labour Party, Solidarity-People Before Profit, the Social Democrats and Sinn Fein. 

Among those campaigning for a no vote to the referendum, the biggest groups are Love Both (formed by the Pro Life Campaign) and Save the 8th. The only political party endorsing a no vote is Renua Ireland.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have both refused to take a stance. However, Taioseach  Leo Varadkar, from Fine Gael, is supporting repeal of the Eighth Amendment and is backing Together for Yes.

What are the arguments for repealing the Eighth Amendment?

Together for Yes argue that a vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment would allow women to access abortion in a safe and legal way in their own country and under the care of their own doctor. Moreover, they argue that legalising abortion would allow women to access care in a way that protects their safety and dignity and allow health professionals to care for women in what is sometimes an extremely difficult and distressing circumstance.

What are the arguments against repealing the Eighth Amendment?

Those arguing against repeal claim that the Eighth Amendment has saved the lives of unborn children and said that a yes vote would result in handing politicians a blank cheque on abortion. Love Both suggest that legalising abortion could put greater strain on the health service, claim that the government intend to allow abortion on demand up to six months and allege that legalisation would result in vulnerable lives, such as unborn children with down syndrome, being aborted.

Opinion polls

Current opinion polls show a roughly 20 point lead for those in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment – with the Yes side on 47% and No on 29%. More than one fifth of people are still undecided on how they will vote on May 25.

Support for repeal is strongest among younger voters, those in urban areas, left-wing voters and the middle class. Support against repeal is strongest among those over 55, as well as working class and unemployed voters.


For more information about the referendum, visit the Irish Referendum Commission’s website.