World News

As Ireland Votes on Abortion, Here’s What You Need to Know

Posted May 25, 2018 7:46 p.m. EDT
Updated May 25, 2018 7:47 p.m. EDT

DUBLIN — Voters in Ireland appear to have overturned the country’s abortion ban, according to two exit polls released Friday night.

One poll, conducted for The Irish Times, showed wide support — 68 percent to 32 percent — for the repeal of a constitutional amendment that has essentially outlawed abortion.

A second exit poll, by RTE Television, showed similar results, with nearly 70 percent of respondents saying they had voted to repeal the amendment, The Associated Press reported.

Exit polling is not necessarily predictive, however, and the actual counting of votes cast in a referendum on Friday will not begin until 9 a.m. Saturday. Official results are expected to be announced late Saturday afternoon.

Ireland’s abortion laws are anchored in the Eighth Amendment to the country’s constitution. They are among the most restrictive in Europe, with abortion effectively outlawed in nearly all cases, including rape, incest or crisis pregnancies.

In the referendum Friday, Irish voters cast ballots on whether to keep or repeal the Eighth Amendment. Repeal would mean that abortion becomes legal throughout the country.

Here is what you need to know to understand Ireland’s abortion referendum.

— The Background

For a conservative state rooted in the values of the Catholic Church and its dictates on the role of women, the debate over the abortion referendum has been divisive.

Many other Irish laws have been liberalized in the past two decades — in part to align with broader legislation of the European Union and in part because of the church’s waning influence, including a groundbreaking vote to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015. Abortion, though, has remained a sticking point.

— The Voters

Voting online or by mail was not an option: Nearly everyone is required to vote in person at their local polling station, except for a handful of exceptions.

An estimated 40,000 Irish men and women living abroad were eligible to cast ballots, and thousands of them traveled to Ireland to vote.

Many shared stories on social media with #hometovote. The majority of posts were by those voting in favor of repealing the amendment, but some shared stories of traveling to vote against the repeal. Many voters said they made up their mind at the last minute. Among them was Lisa Moran, 39, who said Friday that she had been unsettled about how to cast her ballot until a day or two ago. She finally decided to vote “yes,” in favor of repeal.

“I don’t agree with abortion, but I think people should be given a choice,” Moran said. “If we vote yes, it means we’re not stuck in the past, we’re not ruled by the Catholic Church. It means we’ll be released from them.”

— The Influence of History and the Church

Mary McAuliffe, a lecturer in gender studies at University College Dublin, said understanding the history of Irish society was critical to understanding the current abortion debate.

Ireland, founded in 1922 after gaining independence from Britain, is less than 100 years old and is still defining itself.

“It takes a post-colonial society a long time to figure out who and what they are, and part of that identity formation in the early years and right up to the end of the 20th century meant that the state and the society expected women to be a particular sort of woman,” McAuliffe said.

“Purity, morality and domesticity were the markers of what it meant to be an acceptable, respectable Irish woman,” she added.

And, she noted, “there is a significant cohort in the country that don’t want that to change, that see feminism as the destruction of the family and of society norms.”

An article in the Irish Constitution refers directly to a woman’s place as in the home, stating that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.”

For decades, unmarried women and girls who became pregnant were relegated to “mother and baby homes” run by the church, where they were often subjected to abuse and mistreatment. Children were forcibly taken from such mothers and put up for adoption.

“It was a democracy, definitely, but it was very much informed in terms of social policy by religion and by particularly Catholic ideology, so we could call it a democratic theocracy,” McAuliffe said.

Things began to change in the 1970s. Contraception was legalized; a law banning married women from public sector jobs was lifted; and an equal pay act was introduced.

The church’s waning influence — in part because of widespread sexual abuse by priests and other scandals — has also brought about a growing embrace of more liberal views.

— The Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment, which was voted into the constitution by popular referendum in 1983, states that the life of a pregnant woman was equal to that of an unborn child. That meant, in practice, that abortion was strictly against the law.

In the years since, a series of high profile cases ignited debate.

In 1992, a 14-year-old rape victim was prevented from traveling to Britain for an abortion. After that, Irish voters passed a constitutional amendment that left the abortion ban intact but recognized a woman’s right to travel outside the country for an abortion.

The 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian-born dentist living in Ireland, gave momentum to the current call for change. Halappanavar was admitted to a hospital while having a miscarriage.

Doctors told her the fetus would not survive, but because it still had a heartbeat, the medical staff initially denied her requests for an abortion. By the time the fetus no longer had a heartbeat and was removed, Halappanavar had septicemia, an infection from which she died.

The church did not take a stand on the Eighth Amendment referendum or campaign on behalf of retaining it. Prominent Catholic organizations and theologians, however, have made their views known.

— What Comes Next

If the vote favors repealing the Eighth Amendment, its current language would be replaced by the phrase: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

Draft legislation released before the referendum would allow for relatively unrestricted abortions up until 12 weeks of pregnancy, subject to consultation with a doctor and a short waiting period. Beyond 12 weeks of pregnancy, termination would still be possible — up to 24 weeks — if two doctors determined that a woman’s life was threatened by the pregnancy or that there was serious risk to her health.

Regardless of the result of the vote, Irish women have obtained abortions by traveling to other countries or through the use of pills ordered online, and would continue to do so. Between 1980 and 2016, nearly 170,000 women traveled to Britain from Ireland to terminate pregnancies, according to statistics from Britain’s Department of Health.

Those who oppose the Eighth Amendment’s repeal said that women who travel abroad are going for what is essentially an elective procedure, and that a fetus should be protected under Irish law.

For many “yes” voters, it was about giving women the right to make their own choices, in their own country. “We were told for so long what to do,” said Bernie Doyle, 79, who voted “yes” on Friday. “But now, give women the right to choose.”