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Ireland’s Abortion Referendum: What Does It Mean?

Not sure what happened last weekend in the Irish abortion referendum? Here's a round up of what it is and why it matters.

Emily Budinger

Naked Politics Blogger 

What happened?

Last weekend Ireland made history. Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits abortion in Ireland. The country voted for ‘Yes’ to repeal with around 66% versus ‘No’ to repeal with around 33%, and with a turnout of over 64% it was the third highest turnout for a referendum ever in Ireland.

This doesn’t mean that Ireland has changed its abortion laws, but it does mean that the ban on changing their abortion laws will be taken from their constitution. This will allow future Irish governments to put forward new bills to change the laws on abortion. The results have also lead to calls for changes to Northern Ireland’s “Victorian-era abortion ban”, with calls for Theresa May to put pressure on the Northern Irish MP’s to address the growing legal inequalities between it and the rest of the UK and now, the Irish Republic.

What’s the historical context? 

Currently, abortion is available in Ireland only when there is a proven risk to the woman’s life, including through suicide, and the country is the only EU state with such strict abortion laws.

During this referendum, it was revealed an estimated nine women travel to Britain daily for abortions, with another estimated three women having illegal terminations through buying unlicensed pills online. ‘Yes’ campaigners used these statistics, as well as the tragic story of Savita Halappanaver , to steer the conversation towards the negative effects the Eighth Amendment has on women.

On the opposing side, the ‘No’ campaigners argued that the amendment to the constitution is too vague and could end up with the government implementing abortion laws similar to the UK. The ‘No’ campaign used the now infamous ‘1 in 5’ posters to highlight the statistic that 1 in 5 pregnancies in the UK end in abortion (although this claim has come under scrutiny).

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Reaction

The parents of Savita Halappanavar said they were “really, really happy” the Irish people had delivered a strong Yes in the abortion referendum. This follows calls for any new abortion laws to be named after their daughter, aka ‘Savita’s Law’.

The government has reacted generally positively to the result, which isn’t surprising considering key figure Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was in favour of holding the referendum and was a vocal supporter of the ‘Yes’ campaign.

Vadkar said “I think what we’ve seen today really is the culmination of a quiet revolution that’s taken place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years. This has been a great exercise in democracy and the people have spoken”.

However, not everyone is pleased with the result, with a noticeable split between the towns and the countryside. “I don’t like murder,” one rural Donegal woman told the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/27/life-is-precious-donegal-quietly-defiant-after-voting-no-in-referendum) when asked why she voted against the change. “I know you have to consider cases like rape and young girls, but I think that should have been legislated for separately. I feel very sad about this as I think the next thing they will do will be euthanasia. They will stick a needle in us and we’ll be gone.”

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This remark mirrors a hidden fear in ‘No’ voters about the result, which is the lessening power of the Catholic Church over Ireland, and the country becoming increasingly secular. After the Church’s sex abuse scandals, it’s voice wasn’t heard much in the debate and there is a feeling (especially with young people in Ireland) that its moral authority shouldn’t go unquestioned anymore.

This increasing secularism can also be seen with 2015’s vote to legalise same- sex marriage. However, despite a slight difference between demographics in the way votes were cast, director of ISPSOS MRBI Kieran O’ Leary stressed that in his analysis of the results, the exit polls showed support for repeal had a broad base, with a majority in most age groups voting in favour. He disagreed with those suggesting the result was due to the engagement of younger voters and suggested they be mindful that there were as many votes cast in favour of repeal by those 65 and older than those aged 25 and under.

For many Irish people, this fight was not just about the rights of the unborn vs the rights of the mother, but also for the soul of Ireland and the future of the Catholic faith within it. And that crosses age boundaries just as it does county ones.

What happens now?

The Government will shortly bring forward proposed legislation to the Irish Lower-House in Dublin (the Dáil), but until this is passed current law remains in place. The Government’s proposed legislation will make terminations accessible within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy without restriction, and Leo Varadkar said he hoped to have the proposed legislation passed within six months.

But for now, Ireland will have to look to the future and to itself to determine what it wants to do with the results of this referendum and what it means for the Irish state and the Irish people going forward.

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