Ireland voted decisively to repeal one of the world’s more restrictive abortion bans, sweeping aside generations of conservative patriarchy and dealing the latest in a series of stinging rebukes to the Roman Catholic Church.
The eighth amendment is a clause inserted into the Irish constitution after a referendum in 1983. It recognises an equal right to life for both mother and unborn child, effectively prohibiting abortion in almost all cases.
Abortion had been illegal in Ireland since the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861. But with reform underway around Europe and many countries opting to permit abortions on the request until 12 weeks or more, anti-abortion campaigners in Ireland sought the greater security of a constitutional amendment.
Two further referendums were held in 1992, resulting in the 13th amendment, which allows women to travel in and out of Ireland to have an abortion (pro-repeal campaigners say 170,000 have done so), and the 14th, which authorises information about abortion services overseas. In 2013, the law was changed to permit abortions when doctors feel a woman’s life may be at risk from pregnancy complications or suicide. Otherwise, a doctor unlawfully performing an abortion faces prosecution and up 14 years in jail.
Repeal of the 8th amendment would allow the government to legislate on abortion. The proposed legislation will bring Ireland into line with the majority of European countries, allowing for abortion on request up to the 12th week of pregnancy (subject to medical regulation). After 12 weeks abortion would only be available in cases of a fatal foetal anomaly, if the pregnant woman’s life was at risk or if her health was at risk of serious harm. Cases after 12 weeks would have to be approved by two doctors.