The Road to Repealing the Eighth
9 June 2018
The 2018 Irish abortion referendum was a massive step forward for women’s reproductive rights in the EU. The phrase ‘repeal the eighth’ was one that flooded media headlines during the campaign period, with voters across the nation eagerly awaiting the results. At 18:13, Ireland local time, it was announced at Dublin Castle that the Eighth Amendment was voted to be repealed with 66.4% approval. A majority in favour of repeal has paved a path towards a more liberal regime, where women can safely access abortions in their home country.
Ireland has held some of the most restrictive abortions laws in the EU, with current legislation stating that abortions can only be performed when a woman’s life is at risk. This excludes women seeking abortions in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality. Irish laws lie in stark contrast with other EU nations, which typically grant abortions for both health concerns and upon request up to 12 weeks into the pregnancy.
The Eighth amendment was adopted into the Constitution following a referendum in 1983 with the purpose of guaranteeing the equal protection to the right of life between the mother and fetus. The ambiguous wording of the amendment prohibited abortions under any circumstance, stating: “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.”
Following heavy criticism on both the restrictive nature of the Eighth as well as the ambiguous wording, two subsequent amendments were added: The Thirteenth, which specified that the prohibition of abortions did not limit the freedom to seek international means of termination; and the Fourteenth, which specified that the prohibition would not limit the right to distribute information about international abortion services. The amendments were prompted after Supreme Court “Case X”, wherein a 14-year-old girl was prohibited from terminating a rape induced pregnancy by traveling to Britain. The court ruled that X’s suicidal thoughts posed a substantial risk to the lives of both herself and the fetus, which was later ruled unconstitutional by the European court of human rights. The Supreme Court further called on the government to grant abortions when the life of the mother is at risk, including the possibility of suicide.
This was the first step of many, to repealing the Eighth.
The Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments led over 170,000 women to travel overseas to receive abortions. However, the new adjustment granting abortions in protection of the mother’s life continued to be a contentious issue, with doctors wary of the extent to which the danger must impose in order to justify intervening. In 2017, a citizens’ assembly established by the Irish government urged a referendum to disband the Eighth, following the death of Savita Halappanavar. Mrs. Halappanavar sought medical aid during her pregnancy in 2012 with severe back pain and flu like symptoms. The doctors concluded that she was inevitably going to have a miscarriage, however refused to medically induce a miscarriage despite the risk of infection following the rupture of the foetal membranes. Doctors claimed that their hands were tied under Irish law if there was no direct risk to the life of the mother. Mrs. Halappanavar later died of septic shock when the medical team failed to perform a timely abortion after the infection was detected.
Following an inquest in 2013, hospital staff members including doctors stated that Mrs. Halappanavar would likely have survived if she was able to legally terminate her pregnancy at the time the miscarriage was confirmed. The Health Service Executive stated that there had been an over-emphasis on non-intervention until the point where the foetal heartbeat had stopped. Praveen Halappanavar, Mrs. Halappanavar’s husband, stated in court that when the couple had requested an abortion under miscarriage circumstances, their demand was responded with “this is a Catholic country”.
Savita’s death ignited women from across the nation in a massive push towards constitutional change. Campaigners showcased Savita’s death as an example of how the Irish state failed to protect their citizens, putting religious interests above those of the people. Anti-abortion supporters felt the case was being exploited by pro-choice reformers, especially from foreign media outlets. Ireland ultimately imposed an international ad-block for Facebook and other media sites during the canvassing period, unless the ad was from a registered entity within the country.
Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister of Ireland, reflected upon the referendum outcome stating that a quiet revolution had taken place, and the result demonstrated the public’s desire to respect women in making their own choices regarding their bodies. He acknowledged the 33.6% of voters who were against the repeal, reassuring them that Ireland still upheld the same values, however in a more respectful, tolerant and open light.
However, the effects of the referendum extend beyond the scope of a ‘my body my rights’ campaign. It means doctors being able to tell women that they can assist in their termination request, whether it be for health reasons, rape, incest, or simply by choice. It means women being able to access an abortion in their own country, without having to cross seas in order to be helped. It means a destigmatized zone where the veil of shame, embarrassment and guilt has been lifted.
Last, and most importantly, it means that the continuous discussion of national issues can result in tangible change. Repealing the Eighth, on a global scale, has disproved the widespread assumptions of historical determinism. It means that people, places, politicians, attitudes, and beliefs do change. By developing a liberal agenda in a nation that has consistently held conservative values, the referendum result is a symbol hope for the thousands of women’s movements that continue to progress worldwide.