Why Ireland’s Abortion Vote Matters

Earlier this month, Iowa passed the nation’s most restrictive abortion legislation, prohibiting the termination of pregnancy once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Often this occurs around six weeks, which is when many women first find out they are pregnant. Last week, President Trump—who in an interview during the 2016 campaign advocated for “some form of punishment” for women who seek abortions—signaled he was finally moving to defund Planned Parenthood and similar health care organizations. While politicians at home try to grab our pussies with their moralistic sausage fingers, citizens in Ireland are determining for the first time in 35 years whether women should be in control of their own reproductive health. Here's why it matters.


Ireland goes to the polls on Friday to vote whether or not to repeal the 8th Amendment, which recognizes the “right to life of the unborn” as equal to that of the woman carrying the fetus. The 8th Amendment was itself added to the Irish constitution—considered a living document—by referendum in 1983 in order to strengthen existing anti-abortion laws. Currently Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the developed world, completely barring the termination of a pregnancy except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger—a caveat that was only added in 2013. If the repeal is successful, the governing center-right coalition has proposed allowing abortion on request up to 12 weeks. From 12 to 24 weeks, abortion would be permissible with doctor approval in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities or when the mother’s health is in danger.


By one low estimate, some 3,000 to 4,000 Irish women travel to England for abortions annually, while others opt to order abortion-inducing drugs illegally from international pharmacies despite frequent post office screenings and the penalty of a 14-year jail sentence. Women with the money and documentation to travel abroad and pay for an abortion have options. But for women who live a distance from an airport or port, don’t have the necessary money for travel/lodging/medical services, can’t take time off from work or childcare, or don’t have the immigration papers necessary to leave and return, accessing an abortion ranges from challenging to impossible. The situation in Ireland is not all that dissimilar from that in parts of the United States, where women living in, say, rural North or South Dakota may have to traverse the length of their states to reach the nearest abortion clinic.

Heavily Catholic, Ireland has a dark legacy of placing the rights of fetuses above those of women. In 1992 there was the case of Miss X, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who was raped by a family friend and became pregnant as a result. Intending to take her to England for an abortion, her parents contacted the police to coordinate obtaining a fetal DNA sample to strengthen the criminal case against their daughter’s rapist. The police reported the family’s intentions, leading to a court injunction that prevented the girl from leaving the country. Only an appeal to the Supreme Court—on the grounds that she was suicidal—eventually allowed her to travel to England.

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist from India, arrived at a hospital in Galway in the midst of a miscarriage. At 17 weeks, the fetus was not viable, but doctors repeatedly denied Halappanavar drugs that would have accelerated the inevitable because of the presence of a fetal heartbeat. With a ruptured amniotic sac, Halappanavar was vulnerable to a life-threatening infection, yet doctors continued to monitor the fetus’ heartbeat over the next three days even as her condition deteriorated. She died of sepsis four days after miscarrying naturally.

There was also the 2014 case of Ms. Y, a minor who came to Ireland seeking asylum after enduring abuse and torture in her home country. At a preliminary health screening, she was found to be seven weeks pregnant—the product of a rape. Because of her immigration status, her approval for travel to the Netherlands for an abortion was delayed by red tape, even as she repeatedly told caseworkers that she would rather die than have the baby. By the time she was deemed sufficiently suicidal, she was 24 weeks pregnant and therefore detained at a maternity hospital, where she refused food and fluids. The baby was delivered by Caesarian section at 25 weeks.


Friday’s referendum comes just three years after Ireland voted to legalize same-sex marriage, becoming the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality by popular vote. The battle to repeal the 8th, taken together with the 2015 gay marriage referendum and the 1995 vote to allow divorce (which still comes with a four-year waiting period), represents the latest in a series of challenges to the entanglement of church and state. The exposure of atrocities by the Catholic Church in Ireland—from the sexual abuse of children to the horrifying conditions at mother-and-baby homes—has taken a toll on the Church’s hold over the country. In 1991, 91 percent of Ireland identified as Catholic. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 78 percent.

The Irish vote also coincides with a fraught time for abortion rights in the United States. In the first quarter of 2018 alone, 308 measures were introduced on the state level to restrict access to abortion. Just last week, President Trump announced a “domestic gag rule” that would strip federal funding from health care organizations that provide abortion, abortion referrals, or in some cases even information about abortion. While existing laws already prohibit the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life, Planned Parenthood and other health care providers currently receive funding to offer essential medical services such as cancer and STI screenings and birth control. 

It’s also worth noting that, in this age of foreign political interference, Facebook and Google imposed restrictions on ad buys related to the referendum in early May. Facebook stopped running advertisements originating from outside Ireland while Google halted all ads entirely in order to maintain “election integrity.”

The past few weeks in the United States have felt like an inevitable march towards the documentary remake of The Handmaid’s Tale, with the fate of anyone with a womb being determined by politicians. It's a glimmer of hope, then—despite the narrowing of opinion polls in advance of the referendum—to see this decision in Ireland being placed in the hands of the people. Amid the rising tides of populism and extremism in Europe and at home, a Yes vote on Friday would be a vote for a secular society that recognizes a woman's right to bodily autonomy.

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