The principle is clear

Our bodies, our choice

Whatever the result of the referendum, writes James Harvey, the fight for a woman’s right to choose will go on

Opinion polls in the final stages of the Irish abortion referendum campaign showed a narrowing of the gap between pro- and anti-abortion voters as polling day (Friday May 25) approached, leading some to suggest that a surprise result might be in the offing.1 One of the last opinion polls found that, whilst still ahead, the pro-abortion lead had fallen during the campaign and stood at 12% (44%-32%). But, with 17% of voters still undecided, it seemed possible that a dramatic turnaround in opinion could yet take place.2 Consequently media reports suggested that both the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ campaigns have showed no signs of slowing down in the last few days.

Whatever the result, the referendum campaign and the heated debates it engendered about decriminalising abortion will bring fundamental change - not only for Irish women, but also for Irish society and politics more generally.3

This referendum has been a long time in the making. The eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, which places the rights of a pregnant woman on an equal footing with the rights of a foetus, was passed in 1983.The full text declares: “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.”4

Although abortion was already illegal in Ireland, the 1983 campaign by conservative Catholics and sections of the political establishment to add the amendment to the constitution was designed to reinforce this existing prohibition and to head off a growing campaign for women’s rights.5 In retrospect the 1983 victory of the Catholic right was the high-water mark of its influence in contemporary Ireland.

In the decades that followed the authority of the Catholic church was almost constantly called into question by a series of scandals and allegations of abuse going back decades.6 From the late 1980s the power and influence of the church visibly waned, accelerating a process that began in the 1960s.7 The election of a secular liberal lawyer, Mary Robinson, as president in 1990 and the referendum victory (albeit by the narrowest of margins) that removed the constitutional prohibition of divorce in 1995 were significant signs of the increasing pace of change.8

However, abortion rights remained an area where the Catholic consensus on social policy still remained intact in law and medical practice. This was reflected in a number of high-profile court cases, most notably the ‘X case’ in 1992, which prompted a growing pro-choice campaign for abortion. Constitutional amendmentsby the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition allowing women the freedom to travel abroad for an abortion and the freedom to obtain or make available information on abortion services were successful in 1992, but the 12th amendment - which would have rolled back the supreme court ruling on the X case that the risk of suicide was not sufficient grounds to allow an abortion - was rejected.9 The ‘right to travel’ and the ‘right to information’ exposed the reality of abortion in Ireland for the estimated 3,000 women per year who travel to Britain. This truly was a ‘British solution to an Irish problem’!

Whilst for many legislators and Catholic moralists turning a blind eye to this ‘solution’ was preferable to conceding to Irish women reproductive rights and control over their own bodies, others could not afford to wait for a change in the law. In many ways the starting point for the current campaign was the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Savita died because of complications from a septic miscarriage when she was 17 weeks pregnant. The eighth amendment meant that doctors refused to carry out an abortion because the foetus still had a heartbeat. The publicity and the public outcry surrounding the case gave renewed energy and anger to the campaign and increased pressure on the Irish state to act.10

The current proposals to repeal the eighth amendment emerged from a time-consuming consultation process involving a randomly chosen ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ - ostensibly a broadly representative cross-section of Irish society - and a joint committee of both houses of the Oireachtas (Irish parliament).11 If passed, the constitutional amendment will allow legislators to consider giving access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy without restriction. After that period, it will only be allowed if there is a threat to the health or life of the mother, or in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. It will be a GP-led service, but medical staff will be able to conscientiously object. Most importantly, even if the repeal referendum succeeds the bill itself will still have to be passed through parliament.

These restrictions illustrate the hesitant and cautious nature of the ‘official’ pro-choice campaign, drawn from Ireland’s great and good, such as the leaders of the major political parties, including Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour and Sinn Féin. The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has kept himself in the headlines and on the TV screens by declaring that a vote for repeal of the eighth will be a sign that Ireland is now secular, modern and part of the European mainstream.12 Similar sentiments have been heard from other establishment figures, including Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: judging from the degree of consensus at the top of Irish politics in supporting repeal, you might well wonder why it has taken so long for politicians to get round to doing something about abortion. Leo, Micheál and company - what kept ye?

But if ‘official Ireland’ is largely on the side of repeal, the drive, enthusiasm and, of course, the foot soldiers knocking on the doors to canvass support has come from grassroots activists. Whilst the umbrella Together For Yes campaign has been moderate in its approach, many local groups have argued for a more radical outlook and have extended their demands to wider issues of women’s health and reproductive rights. Nevertheless, the militant slogan, ‘Repeal the eighth - our bodies, our choice’, makes the central demand on this particular issue very clear.

Whatever the result on May 25, the issues raised during the campaign can no longer be consigned to the ‘too difficult to touch’ file in ministerial offices. If the eighth is repealed the real fight for full abortion rights will only just have started. The campaign has to continue and the mobilisation of support must be stepped up: pressure will still need to be applied to TDs who might yet vote through restrictive access to abortion. Whatever the verdict on referendum day, the fight for Irish women to have full control over their bodies and for the full right to abortion on demand will go on.


1. The Observer May 20 2018.

2. The Irish Times May 23 2018: www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/retain-eighth-campaign-seeks-to-shift-key-message-as-vote-looms-1.3504824.

3. The Sunday Business Post May 2018: www.businesspost.ie/opinion/defeat-repeal-eighth-amendment-radical-profound-consequences-416960.

4. www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1983/ca/8/enacted/en/print#sec1.

5. One example of the successes of this pressure was the Health (Family Planning) Act 1980, which allowed pharmacists to dispense contraceptives for ‘bona fide’ family planning or medical purposes. This ran counter to Catholic teaching and was correctly seen as significant breach in the moral monopoly of the church over Irish social policy.

6. From stories about bishops and priests fathering children through to allegations of sexual abuse and brutality in church-run institutions, such as the Magdalen laundries, the Irish and international media were awash with evidence that undermined the position of the Catholic church as moral guardian in Irish society. Official investigations and reports by the Irish state confirmed the truth of the allegations and added further to the pressure on the church. For a summary of these events see ‘Clerical child abuse - an Irish timeline’ The Irish Times July 13 2011: www.irishtimes.com/news/clerical-child-abuse-an-irish-timeline-1.880042. See also S Donnelly, ‘Sins of the father: unravelling moral authority in the Irish Catholic church Irish Journal of Sociology July 2015: www.researchgate.net/publication/271496078_Sins_of_the_Father_Unravelling_Moral_Authority_in_the_Irish_Catholic_Church.

7. Declining mass attendance and falling vocations for the priesthood were just two examples of these changes in Irish society. The causes of these shifting patterns were ascribed to a wide variety of factors ranging from secularisation, urbanisation and the shift from agriculture to new forms of industry through to Ireland’s membership of the European Union. Whatever the exact configuration of these economic and social changes, they all acted to produce an Ireland that by the early 21st century was much closer to the mainstream social norms of western Europe than it was to ‘traditional Catholic Ireland’. For a good summary of these developments see D Ferriter The transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 London 2005.

8. T Brown Ireland: a social and cultural history 1922-2002 London 2010.

9. ‘Twenty years on: a timeline of the X case’ the journal.ie February 2012: www.thejournal.ie/twenty-years-on-a-timeline-of-the-x-case-347359-Feb2012.

10. The Irish Times April 11 2018: www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/savita-halappanavar-s-father-urges-yes-vote-in-abortion-referendum-1.3457368.

11. The Guardian May 22 2018.

12. The New York Times January 27 2018: www.nytimes.com/2018/01/27/world/europe/ireland-varadkar-abortion-ban.html.