By LISA LUINENBURG
In a stunning victory for women, Ireland officially removed its nearly total ban on abortions in late September. The change was a result of a referendum on May 25 of this year, in which 66.4% of voters (to 33.6% against) overwhelmingly voted for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which banned abortions in nearly all cases throughout the country.
Although those in favor of the repeal were from both urban and rural areas, they were mostly younger, with people over 65 being the only group to reject the repeal.
Abortions have been illegal in Ireland for a long time, mostly under the strong influence of the Catholic Church. However, the Eighth Amendment was put into place through a public referendum in 1983, in a bid to solidify the country’s anti-abortion position after the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortions in the U.S. in the 1970s. The restrictive amendment forced many women in Ireland (those who could afford it, that is) to travel abroad to gain access to abortions. In 2016 alone, 3265 Irish women traveled to the U.K. to have an abortion.
Since the 1990s, the Catholic Church’s social and political hold has been loosening, as Ireland has passed laws granting easier access to divorce, contraception, and same-sex marriage.
Gail McElroy, a professor of politics at Trinity College in Dublin, told The New York Times after the May 25 referendum, “It is the final nail in the coffin for them. They’re no longer the pillar of society, and their hopes of re-establishing themselves are gone.”
Simon Harris, the Health Minister in Ireland, recently announced that the plan is for abortion services in Ireland to be free.
Harris explained to a reporter, “I’ve said from the start that I don’t want cost to be a barrier, because if cost is a barrier, you get into a situation where one of two things could happen: you see private clinics develop—we don’t want that to happen in Ireland, we want this to be part of an integrated public health service—and secondly, you can see people having to continue to travel.”
The next phase of the process will be for Harris to submit a new law governing abortion to the Irish lawmakers, which could go into effect by next year. The legislative phase always presents the risk of concessions that have been won by the working class to be watered down, so it will be important for the Irish people to continue to pressure for free access to abortions.
NPR reporter Debbie Elliot cited draft legislation earlier in the year, which would allow elective abortions up to 12 weeks and limited access up to the 23rd week of pregnancy, a far cry from a similar law in Britain, which allows abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. And the restriction on abortions unless the mother’s life is at risk remains in effect in Northern Ireland.
Nonetheless, the repeal of the abortion ban in Ireland represents a major step forward for women in Ireland and everywhere else who continue to struggle for their right to control and limit their own reproductive processes.
Photo: Claire Doherty / AP