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The Irish Referendum on Abortion

By Marine Thizon

· Hot Topics

On 25 May this year, Irish citizens will be asked to participate in a referendum to vote on a proposal to repeal Ireland's abortion ban. The Irish constitution currently prohibits abortion under almost all circumstances. This referendum could have significant implications for health and medical ethics in the UK and therefore merits to be properly looked at.

A Quick European Snapshot

Abortion refers to the termination of a pregnancy. In the vast majority of European countries, abortions are today available on request by the mothers up to 12 weeks of pregnancy (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, France). Other countries allow abortion on request beyond 12 weeks and up to 24 weeks (The UK, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain, and Sweden).


Generally speaking, these limits can be expanded in cases where the mother’s life or physical and mental health are in jeopardy or if foetal abnormality is identified. It varies from a country to another whether one or two medical practitioners are required to make a decision to terminate a pregnancy.

Both Malta and Ireland, however, prohibit abortion unless the mother’s life is at risk in Ireland.

The Irish Case: 'The Equal Right to Life of the Mother & the Unborn'

The Irish constitution currently prohibits abortion under almost all circumstances. The Eighth amendment was inserted into the Irish Constitution after a referendum in 1983. The amendment guarantees to protect as far as practicable the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother“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.” Currently and since 2013, abortion is only allowed in Ireland when the life of the mother is at risk.


On Friday 25 May 2018, Irish citizens will be asked to vote on a proposal to repeal the Eighth Amendment, also referred to as article 40.3.3, and replace the wording with “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy”. In other words, if given the green light on 25 May, the government will delete this amendment and insert in its place wording referring to a new law on abortion yet to be made. It will then submit a legislative proposal allowing abortion in a new law outside of the constitution.

Since 1980, 170,000 women have traveled mainly to the UK and the Netherlands to access abortion. A high proportion of women also used abortion pills online services with all the potential risks engendered by self-medication.

The Governments Proposal

Subject to the results of the referendum, the Irish government promised to put forward legislation that would allow abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and beyond that involving rape, incest and the health of the mother. A woman will seek a termination from a medical practitioner, potentially a GP, or an obstetrician or a gynecologist. The medical practitioner will have a legal obligation to discuss the woman’s options with her. A three-day waiting period will be enforced. After the 72 hours has elapsed, an abortion pill will be administered to women who choose to continue with the abortion.

In very specific circumstances, if there is a risk to a woman’s life or a risk of serious harm to the health of the mother, two doctors will be asked to determine if an abortion should be permitted after 12 weeks. However, terminations in these instances will not be carried out beyond viability, which is reached at 24 weeks of pregnancy.


Currently, a woman who accesses an abortion in Ireland faces 14 years in prison. The same penalty applies to a medical practitioner, or indeed anyone, who assists a woman in procuring a termination. Under the proposed new legislation, this penalty would be removed.

The legislation provides for conscientious objection for medical practitioners. However, it is expected doctors will be obliged to make arrangements for the transfer of care of the pregnant woman concerned to another practitioner.

A majority of Irish voters, 56%, told pollsters they view that approach as a "reasonable compromise." However, 41 % said they think the law needs to be changed but don't agree with the 12-week proposal.

What do the Polls Say?

A recent poll published on 20 April showed the race tightening ahead of the referendum. The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed 47% of voters plan to vote to repeal the ban, down from 56% in January. The proportion of people who said they'll vote to keep the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which gives mother and unborn child an equal right to life, remained relatively stable at 28%. 20% of the voters are still uncertain about their future vote and 3% said they will not vote. The narrowing of opinion as the vote approaches is a consistent trend in Irish referenda in recent years.


Cleavage between the elderly and young voters is significant with 67% of 18-24 years old and 58% of the 25-34 years old supporting the yes camp, while only 24% of the 65+ category is in favour of a ban. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael, and the Fianna Fáil opposition leader, Micheál Martin, are both backing a yes vote.

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