This Friday, Irish voters will decide if they want to lift the country’s ban on abortion by repealing the constitution’s Eighth Amendment. But only days before the referendum, Ireland remains divided on the matter.
Ireland’s abortion laws are some of the strictest in the European Union, second only to Malta. The Irish constitution’s Eighth Amendment grants an unborn foetus the same right to life as its mother. Since the amendment was introduced in 1983, Irish authorities have interpreted it as a ban on abortion in nearly all circumstances, including cases of rape, incest, and foetal abnormalities. Those who break the law face strict penalties, with possible sentences of up to 14 years in prison.
If voters decide to repeal the amendment, the government has pledged to pass legislation allowing abortions for any reason during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and later in cases where the mother’s life is at risk or the foetus is not expected to survive.
The May 25 referendum has sharply divided Irish communities. Although the repeal side was previously leading the polls, the gap has narrowed significantly in recent weeks – so much so that neither “yes” nor “no” campaigners could predict a win with confidence.
Many of those in favour of repealing the amendment say a woman should have the right to decide what to do with her own body and argue that Ireland’s stance on abortion subjects women to unfair treatment.
“We have a medieval legal provision for sexual reproductive health care in Ireland, and we have not faced this reality,” Dr Mark Murphy, a lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and a general practitioner in Dublin, told CNN.
Irish women seeking abortions are often forced to travel to the UK for the procedure. In 2015, at least 3,400 Irish women went to Britain to terminate their pregnancies, according to data from the UK’s healthcare service.
A committee of experts at the United Nations has previously said Ireland’s ban on most abortions subjects certain women to “discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and should be lifted in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
Some Pro-Choice campaigners have suggested that the resistance to liberalising abortion policies stems from a history of oppression of and control over women.
“Ireland has a terrible history of oppressing women, and the legacy of the Catholic Church is control,” Una Mullally, editor of the book “Repeal the 8th,” told The New York Times. Mullally referred to the thousands of unmarried women in Ireland who, between the 1700s and the 1990s, were placed into mental asylums or servitude after becoming pregnant.
Anti-abortion activists, however, argue that “a life is a life” and are staunchly against unrestricted abortion. For many, the vote is a question of morals – “to some, abortion amounts to murder rather than being about liberal cultural values,” The New York Times reports.
Judy Donnelly, who works in a pub in Carrigtwohill, told The New York Times that there should be exceptions in certain cases, such as rape or incest or when the woman’s life is in danger, but that legalising abortions “would “make it easier for people to say, ‘Oh, I’ll just go and rid of it.’”
“Just because you made a boo-boo doesn’t mean you get an abortion,” she said.
In the event of a “yes” vote, the current law will remain in place until the government passes new legislation. If voters decide to retain the Eighth Amendment, there will be no alterations to Ireland’s abortion laws or to the penalties for those who break them.