Why Ireland is voting on legalizing abortion

"We cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions."
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Ireland will go to the polls this Summer to vote on whether abortion should be made widely available for the first time in the country’s history, the government announced Monday.

At a Cabinet meeting, the government approved proposals to hold a referendum later this year, which would lead to the legalization of abortion in the first trimester.

“I know this will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make,” Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said. “I know it is a very personal and private issue and for most of us it is not a black-and-white issue, it is one that is grey - the balance between the rights of a pregnant woman and the fetus or unborn.”

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Abortion is currently allowed only if there’s a risk to the life of the mother, but not in cases of rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormality.

Irish people will vote in May or June on whether to retain or repeal article 40.3.3 of the constitution, known as the Eighth Amendment.

While there have been two previous referendums on abortion law — on the right of women to travel for an abortion (1992) and whether to remove the risk of suicide as grounds for an abortion (2002) — this is the first time voters will be asked to make the procedure widely available across the island.

What’s the current situation?

The Eighth Amendment, approved by a 1983 referendum, "acknowledges the right to life of the unborn" — meaning the life of the woman and her unborn child are seen as equal. Abortion is a criminal offense in Ireland, punishable by up to 14 years in jail.

This results in thousands of woman traveling abroad every year to have an abortion, mostly to the U.K.

In 2016 alone, 3,265 women and girls gave Republic of Ireland addresses when accessing abortion services at clinics in England and Wales, according to UK Department of Health statistics.

“So we already have abortion in Ireland, but it’s unsafe, unregulated and unlawful. In my opinion we cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions,” Varadkar said.

Why change the law now?

Women have been campaigning to repeal the amendment since the Eighties, but the fight has gained considerable momentum in recent years.

The movement gained fresh impetus after the 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman refused an abortion by an Irish hospital even though she was suffering from a miscarriage. She eventually died from blood poisoning.

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The coalition to repeal the Eighth Amendment hold a vigil to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died after she was denied a medically recommended abortion. (Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)

What is the government proposing?

If the vote passes, the government will introduce legislation based on the findings of a special cross-party parliamentary committee and citizens assembly, both of which last year recommended repealing the amendment.

This will allow for abortion on request up to 12 weeks. Varadkar said abortion in the second trimester and beyond would only be allowed “in exceptional circumstances,” such as risk to the life or health of the mother, or in cases of fatal fetal abnormality.

When will the vote take place?

The Minister for Health Simon Harris said he would publish the attorney general’s guidance Tuesday.

A referendum bill will be drafted in the coming weeks and the final wording of the vote will likely be announced in March. Both houses of the Irish parliament will need to pass the bill, approving the referendum.

A recent survey by the Irish Times suggested there are comfortable majorities in both houses for a referendum.

No concrete date has been set for the vote, but it will likely take place on either May 25 or June 8, depending on how quickly legislation can be put in place. The government is eager to hold the vote in May if possible.

Will it pass?

Abortion rights is a topic that Ireland has struggled to deal with since the 1983 legislation came into force. While there has been a huge swell of support in recent years for a change in the law led by the Repeal the Eight campaign, there is still a large portion of the population strongly opposed to changing reproductive rights in the deeply Catholic country.

However, a recent survey suggests the referendum will pass, with 56 percent favoring a change in the law, with 29 percent opposed, and 15 percent undecided.

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The government wants to hold the referendum in late May as it would allow university students — the vast majority of whom support the government’s position — to vote.

The build-up to the referendum is likely to see an intense debate between reformers and groups such as the Pro Life Campaign, which is staunchly opposed to the change.

The Catholic Church, which once held huge power over all aspects of Irish society, is against repeal, but its opinion no longer carries the weight it once did — especially among younger voters.

What has the reaction been?

Linda Kavanagh from the Abortion Rights Campaign welcomed the government’s announcement, but said the group would “not accept any fudges or half-measures” in relation to the wording of the referendum.

“Modern, accessible and compassionate abortion care must be a guaranteed outcome of the referendum passing, that is non-negotiable,” Kavanagh said in an emailed statement.

Ruth Cullen from the Pro Life Campaign said the government’s decision would “withdraw basic human rights from a group of vulnerable defenceless individuals instead of strengthening their constitutional protections.”

The National Women's Council of Ireland welcomed Monday's announcement. “Every pregnancy is different, every decision is deeply personal. Women and girls in Ireland deserve their dignity. They deserve the right to privacy, family and home," said the group's director Orla O'Connor.

Cover image: Protesters during a Strike 4 Repeal campaign march held on Mar. 08, 2017 in Dublin city center, to seek a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)