The Abortion Referendum Tearing Ireland Apart

4000 Irish women a year are forced overseas to get the abortions they can't obtain at home.

What you need to know
  • Ireland will hold a referendum on abortion on Friday
  • Abortion has been illegal under the country's constitution since 1983
  • 4000 Irish women a year are forced overseas to get the abortions they can't obtain at home
  • Pro-repeal camp holds a slim lead in polls

Almost as soon as you exit the airport and turn towards the city, the signs start screaming at you.






Ireland is days away from voting in an historic referendum to repeal their constitution's eighth amendment, a provision which has essentially criminalised abortion in the deeply Catholic country since it was enacted in 1983.

Posters in Dublin's Temple Bar area.

"The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right," the amendment reads.

It essentially means that Irish women wishing to access an abortion -- for medical reasons, for psychological or mental health reasons, or because they cannot raise a child for whatever reason -- cannot do so legally in their own country. Any woman who seeks an abortion, and any doctor or other person who helps them obtain one, without a life-threatening medical reason, faces 14 years jail under Irish law.

"Some stories we’re aware of are people drinking bleach or trying to fall down stairs," Amnesty International Ireland's Sorcha Tunney, campaign coordinator for the It's Time campaign, told ten daily. Other women are forced to secretly buy abortion pills over the internet, or travel long distances to England in order to obtain an abortion in a hospital or clinic. Amnesty estimates 4000 women a year are forced overseas to get abortions.

On Friday, Ireland will vote on a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. On Saturday, the results will be announced. ten daily travelled to Ireland in the waning days of the campaign to speak to pro-repeal campaigners about how they managed to get the historically Catholic, conservative, anti-abortion nation within arm's reach of approving one of the most progressive measures in its history.

Ireland inserted the eighth amendment into its constitution in 1983, further entrenching laws against abortion which had existed in the country for many years. Tunney, speaking to ten daily in Amnesty's offices in Dublin's historic Temple Bar district, said the 1983 referendum came in reaction to the landmark Roe v Wade court decision in the United States and its effect in normalising abortion across Europe.

"There were changes happening, and a grouping of different politicians and people from Catholic backgrounds felt they needed something in the constitution to stop abortion in Ireland," she said.

In 1992, another referendum slightly liberalised laws to allow women to travel overseas to obtain an abortion, while a landmark court decision known as 'the X case' ruled abortion to be legal if a woman's life was in danger because of pregnancy.

This case centred on a 14-year-old girl who fell pregnant after being raped by a neighbour, and was stopped from having an abortion by a court injunction. On appeal, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that, since the girl had suicidal thoughts related to her pregnancy, her pregnancy constituted "a real and substantial risk" to her life, and that she should be allowed to obtain an abortion.

The 1992 referendum kept abortion illegal, but bizarrely enshrined in the constitution the right for Irish women to travel overseas for an abortion -- that is, the country said abortion in Ireland should remain outlawed but supported women going abroad for the exact same reason.

"The hypocrisy is staggering. It said that where a woman has the abortion is what matters, not that they're having it," Tunney said.

Irish laws shifted again several years ago, following the 2012 death of 31-year-old woman Savita Halappanavar after a miscarriage. Despite the 1992 court ruling, that an abortion was allowed in the event of substantial risk to a woman's life was never codified in legislation.

There were complications with her pregnancy, and Halappanavar requested an abortion, but Irish doctors resisted as they did not consider her condition life-threatening. She had a miscarriage, developed sepsis, and died. Following her death, Ireland's parliament enacted a law enshrining the right for a woman to obtain an abortion in life-threatening circumstances.

Despite the laws gradually becoming more liberal, however, Irish women still lack access to abortion available in other countries. Obtaining consent for an abortion, Tunney said, means having to go to several different doctors and getting their approval, which is only given in life-threatening cases. For women who want an abortion due to an unwanted pregnancy, which may arise from sexual assault or a violent relationship, it is not available.

"It's very strict guidance. You have to see a number of doctors, it's not a great law and it's very unworkable. So women in Ireland travel. If you've got fatal foetal impairment, if you've been raped, if you have suicide or mental health risks, anything besides dying, you've got to travel," Tunney said.

"Nine women travel each day for abortions, and two take a pill. Those are based on United Kingdom stats, and they're incomplete because some women might give another address instead of their real one, but it’s significant."

"Every airplane in the morning to Liverpool, Manchester or London, you could guarantee there’s a woman travelling for an abortion."

Tunney said prosecutions or convictions against women seeking abortions are practically non-existent, but the fact the crime still existed in Irish law was a deterrent to many.

"There aren't prosecutions, but it doesn't really matter that there aren't, and it doesn't mean there wont be any," she said.

Ally, a young woman ten daily spoke to in Dublin, said the criminalisation had a detrimental psychological effect on women.

"Abortion at the moment is being exported to England. It’s time for us to acknowledge it's happening, make it legal and make it safe so women don't have to feel like criminals in their own country, or feel ashamed for something necessary," she said.

In 2016, a coalition of pro-choice campaigners managed to make abortion a significant issue in the Irish national election, to the point where the government was forced to put the eighth amendment up for a referendum. Hugely publicised shows of support to repeal the eighth amendment -- such as a viral range of jumpers -- helped to keep the issue bubbling in the public consciousness, while Sydney woman Brianna Parkins caused a stir in national media by voicing her support for repeal on-stage during the Rose of Tralee pageant in 2016. The hashtag #repealthe8th was one of the most popular and used in Ireland last year, while massive rallies of tens of thousands of people have filled Irish streets in recent times.

Tunney said under the plan supported by pro-choice forces, a medical abortion -- that is, through pills -- would be available through a normal GP up to the 12-week mark of a pregnancy. Following that, abortion would be available on health grounds after the approval of two doctors, that being one obstetrician and one specialist in the area of the specific health concern.

Under the plan, specific abortion clinics would not be built in Ireland.

Now, after months of campaigning and years of pleading from pro-choice supporters, Ireland is days away from that vote, and numbers are tight. Recent polls show the vote neck and neck, with one published in the Irish Times last weekend putting support to overturn the eighth amendment at 44 percent and opposition at 32 percent, with a huge number of undecideds.

"It's a completely different landscape now to even a few years ago. The reactions in the street then were nothing like we get now. People are tired of the burden of the eighth," Sarah Monaghan, national executive for the Together For Yes campaign, told ten daily.

"They know it doesn't work. It has harmed women, caused trauma to family and friends, and they're ready to just move on and enact that change for a better Ireland."

More than 100 separate organisations have banded together under the Together For Yes umbrella campaign, working nationwide to hold town hall meetings, street stalls, information sessions, public meetings and doorknocking to raise awareness of issues relating to lack of access to abortion in Ireland, and trying to whip up the 'yes' vote.

"It's a very divisive issue. It has dominated Irish culture for so long but had an awful lot of silence on it. It’s been a challenge opening that dialogue and those channels, but when we started, it had this incredible ripple effect of women coming out and telling their stories," Monaghan said.

"When they saw there was solidarity and support across the country, it encouraged others to tell their story. It was the same with medical professionals, who told us how they've been impacted by the eighth, unable to practice medicine. The most positive thing has been breaking down that legacy of shame and stigma we had. We’re moving far away from that now."

Tunney said the campaign had worked hard to educate older people, those from more rural areas and undecideds about why it was essential on a health basis that women have wider access to abortion.

"For us, it’s about changing the framing of why women access abortion. It's not just because they're flippant. If a woman doesn't want to continue a pregnancy, who should decide that? For us, that’s the woman," she said.

Polling throughout the campaign has shown the pro-repeal side ahead, but a large number of undecided voters has been a constant theme. The number of those currently on the fence could sway the election for one side or the other, so in the final days of the campaign, the repeal supporters are not resting on their laurels.

"We want people to go into the polling station and think what it means to be equal as a woman in Ireland, and the only way to do that is repealing the eighth," Tunney said.

"We’re trying to get people to think about the moment you tick the box, who you're doing that for, whether that's your friend or sister or yourself. We want people to think what it means to give women dignity and compassion."