May 24, 2018 8:00 am
Updated: May 24, 2018 10:36 am

What you need to know about Ireland’s bitterly-debated abortion vote

As Ireland's referendum on liberalising abortion laws nears, doctors with opposing views have become increasingly involved in the campaigns by giving their medical arguments for and against repeal.


Ireland will go to the polls Friday to vote on whether a constitutional amendment banning abortion should be repealed, in a bitterly-contested campaign that has pitted the country’s deep Catholic roots against calls for women to have a choice in whether they keep a pregnancy.


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Abortion is illegal in Ireland under the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which was passed in 1983 to explicitly ban the practice in all but the direst circumstances. The amendment was introduced following a national referendum, and was strongly supported at the time by the Catholic Church.

It is currently illegal under most circumstances to seek or provide abortion services in Ireland, even in cases of rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormalities. Offenders can face up to 14 years in prison if caught undergoing or providing an abortion procedure.

The full text of the original Eighth Amendment says:

“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.”

The amendment was tweaked in 1992 to allow women to seek abortion advice and leave the country to have an abortion procedure. Another change in 2013 permitted abortions where there was a real and substantial risk to a woman’s life, including the possibility of suicide. Both changes came following nation-wide referendums.

Despite these tweaks, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has condemned Ireland’s abortion laws as “cruel and inhumane.”


Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced shortly after he took office last year that he would put the issue to a nation-wide referendum.

Irish voters will be asked whether they want to repeal the Eighth Amendment entirely, with a “yes” vote opening the door for new legislation governing abortion.

WATCH BELOW: Pro-choice supporters protest Irish anti-abortion law

The Irish government has already proposed a bill that would allow abortions without restriction within the first 12 weeks, and within the first 24 weeks for women facing serious health problems. Abortions after that point would only be permitted in cases involving a fatal fetal abnormality or serious risk to the mother’s health.


The abortion referendum has stoked the passions of Irish on both sides of the debate and around the world, prompting many ex-pats to fly home so they can cast their votes.

“Yes” and “No” advocates alike have been vowing to return to their homeland under the hashtag #HomeToVote.

“The cost of my travel from Toronto was less than my travel costs to the U.K. when I needed to access safe abortion services,” abortion advocate Emma Jayne Geraghty, of Amnesty International Canada, tweeted on Monday.

“I’m going home to vote ‘No’ because life starts at conception, and nobody has the right to take that away,” Irish ex-pat Eoin, in London, said in a testimonial posted on Twitter Wednesday.

It’s been 35 years since Ireland last held a referendum on whether or not abortion should be legal, meaning nobody under the age of 53 has had a chance to directly vote on the issue.


“Yes” and “No” advocates have rallied to defend their respective causes on social media, where some of the most bitter arguments of the debate have been fought.

But many remain concerned about social media itself, following allegations that Russia used targeted social media ads to meddle in the U.S. presidential election and Brexit campaigns.

Facebook and Google have tried to stay ahead of the issue by cracking down on abortion campaign-related ads, removing or restricting them in the lead-up to the vote. However, the actions are not retroactive, meaning ads purchased before the early-May cut-off dates will continue to run.

Lawmakers say they’re concerned about the potential of social media influencing the outcome of the vote.

“We shouldn’t be naïve in thinking Ireland would be immune from all these worldwide trends,” James Lawless, technology spokesman for the opposition Fianna Fail party, told The Associated Press.

“Because of the complete lack of any regulation on social media campaigning in Ireland, somebody at the moment can throw any amount of money, from anywhere in the world, with any message, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”


Ireland’s first move to ease abortion laws came after a Supreme Court decision in the highly-publicized X Case in 1992.

The anonymous 14-year-old girl in the case had become pregnant after she was raped by a family friend, prompting her parents to seek an abortion for her in the U.K.

READ MORE: Nearly half of abortions in the world are unsafe: WHO

However, the Irish government at the time refused to let her leave, sparking a legal battle that ended with the Supreme Court issuing two complicated and somewhat contradictory rulings in the case.

The government put the issue to the people in a referendum, which resulted in Ireland permitting women to seek and obtain abortions outside the country.


The death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar helped trigger the 2013 referendum on abortion, and her story has remained top-of-mind for many “yes” advocates in the run-up to Friday’s vote.

Halappanavar, 31, died in October 2012 from an infection caused by a miscarriage that she was not allowed to terminate. Doctors had told her losing the pregnancy was inevitable, but she was still not allowed an abortion because the fetus had a heartbeat.

She died of a septic infection approximately one week after her request was denied.

READ MORE: Irish mourn death of pregnant woman denied abortion; doctor says law ‘like sword of Damocles’

A midwife at Galway University Hospital famously admonished Halappanavar for seeking an abortion shortly before her death, saying: “Ireland is a Catholic country.” The woman later expressed regret for making the comment.

READ MORE: Irish midwife apologizes to widower of woman denied abortion

Halappanavar’s father, Andanappa Yalagi, has been among those calling for Ireland’s abortion law to be appealed. Yalagi and his wife urged people to vote “yes” in a recent video shared by the advocacy group Together for Yes.

“No family in the future should have to undergo what we went through,” he says in the video.

“Vote yes so that what happened to us won’t happen to any families.”

An inquest into Halappanavar’s death ruled in 2013 that it was due to medical misadventure, and that there were several missed opportunities to save her life.


Most polls in recent days show the “Yes” side has the edge, although it appears to be a slight one.

PM Varadkar and his centre-right party, Fine Gael, have come out in support of repealing the Eighth Amendment. Two of the three minority parties have declared themselves pro-choice, with some allowances for cases of rape, incest or danger to the fetus.

Registered voters will be allowed to cast their ballot in the referendum on Friday until 10 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET), with the count slated for 9 a.m. local time the following day.

Results are expected Saturday evening.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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