Yes or No: Ireland Holds Referendum On Eighth Amendment

The end of January saw Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar make an important announcement – after 35 years Ireland will hold a yes/no referendum on repealing the country’s eighth amendment, which prohibits abortion under nearly all circumstances. The referendum, which will take place in May, is one that has been campaigned and fought for a long time, and after years of ‘political flip-flopping’ Varadkar’s announcement was described as feminist in its tone:

“This is a decision about whether we want to continue to stigmatise and criminalise our sisters, our co-workers, and our friends. Or whether we are prepared to make a collective act of leadership to show empathy and compassion… in making my decision to support [the referendum], I listened to the views of others – medical experts, the public, my party and ministers, friends. Above all, I listened to women.”

Varadkar’s decision to ‘listen to women’ is a towering moment for Irish feminists, many of whom have been campaigning for reproductive rights all their life. And although this does not mean the eighth amendment will be repealed, Varadkar’s push to decriminalise abortion is a small victory for many. When looking at cases like Savita Halappanavar who died from a miscarriage after being denied an abortion or “Ms Y” an asylum seeker who was raped, suicidal and still refused an abortion – the referendum is a light at a somewhat never-ending tunnel.

Currently in the Republic of Ireland abortion is only legal when a woman’s life is in imminent danger, but not in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. Irish and Northern Irish women who seek abortions have two options – travel to Great Britain to procure an abortion or order illegal and potentially dangerous abortion pills by post. In 2014, it was estimated that 1,200 packages containing these pills were seized by Irish customs. Varadkar’s statement reconfirmed this, when he said, “every year nearly 2,000 women take illegal and unsafe pills to terminate pregnancies and every day 11 women travel to mainland Britain to seek abortions”. Consequently, Varadkar has asked for decency in the months running up to the referendum:

 “I know this will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make. It is a very personal and private issue. For most of us, it’s not a black and white issue; it’s one that is grey. A balance between the rights of a pregnant woman and the foetus or unborn. It’s a matter for people to make their own decision based on the evidence they hear, compassion, and empathy.”

Undoubtedly the lead-up to the referendum is going to get ugly and ‘the battle over the eighth amendment will pulse with more emotion than the same-sex marriage struggle’. With pro-life campaigners arguing that the decriminalisation of abortion is unjust, they reinforce that Ireland is a country divided by class, geography, money and most importantly religion. Despite this, Annabel Sowemino, junior doctor says, “women must be trusted to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies. To compel a woman to endure pregnancy and childbirth unless doctors give her legal authorisation to have an abortion is to deny her the right to control her own body, plan her own family and determine her own life course. Whether or not the decriminalisation of abortion bill is successful, it has the potential to act as an important catalyst for the review of abortion services within the UK. It is more important now more than ever, that UK policy-makers use their considerable power to act as a beacon of light for the one in three women that will require an abortion in their lifetimes.”

With Ireland making strides towards change, there are no signs of a proposed referendum in Northern Ireland. Jonathan Walker political editor of the Birmingham Post says, “There’s very little signs of the law changing in Northern Ireland and it’s got nothing to do with the Catholic Church but largely the DUP, The Democratic Unionist Party. It’s a very socially conservative party that does not support any change in abortion rights and although Labor wants to ensure that women in Northern Ireland can access abortions, the difficulty of the political situation right now means there’s very little chance of anything changing”. However, an invisible border does not separate public opinion – like the same-sex referendum, if Ireland votes to repeal the eighth amendment, its aftermath will be felt in the North.

Varadkar’s decision has presented the public with the opportunity to vote. Whether they vote yes or no his democratic approach has been duly noted.

For more information, on the referendum visit

You can also check out my podcast discussing the referendum with Chinedu Onyejelem, editor of the Metro Éireann, an Irish multicultural tabloid newspaper: 

Monique Boreland 

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