Ireland’s decisive endorsement to repeal constitutional obstacles in the way of abortion is a victory for women’s rights over their reproductive health. The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution confers equal rights on the foetus and the mother. In effect, it prohibited abortion, forcing thousands of women to either travel abroad to terminate their pregnancy or buy pills online illegally. In doing so, they risked a 14-year jail sentence. Public opinion on the proposed amendment was sought through a referendum and 66.4% supported amending the Eighth Amendment. This is remarkable, considering that in 1983 70% of voters supported laws restricting abortion. The referendum vote will pave the way for legislation allowing termination of pregnancy within the first 12 weeks, and up to 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances. The new legislation should be in place by the end of this year. This is a landmark step forward for Ireland and women the world over. The campaign to legalise abortion overcame strong opposition from Ireland’s powerful Roman Catholic Church and has come at a time when right-wing conservatism is sweeping across the world.
Women’s rights activists in Ireland have been campaigning assiduously for decades for the right to legally terminate pregnancy. But theirs seemed a lost cause given the power of the anti-abortion Catholic Church in moulding public opinion. Even a decade ago, many Irish politicians, including its Indian-origin Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, were staunchly anti-abortion. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a young dentist from Belagavi died in Ireland following a septic miscarriage after she was denied an abortion. Her death sent shockwaves through Irish society, culminating in even hardline conservatives doing some soul-searching and becoming convinced that women should be allowed to abort legally and safely. It provided a shot in the arm to the campaign to legalise abortion. It resulted in the referendum’s overwhelming ‘yes’ vote. The winds of change began blowing through Ireland only a few years ago. In May 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage on a national level by popular vote. It indicated that the Catholic Church’s hold over public opinion was weakening. That encouraged parties to shed their conservative positions on abortion. The campaign for the right to abortion benefited from these changes in Irish society.
Ireland’s vote for change will impact other countries. Already, women in Northern Ireland are demanding legalising abortion. In the US, women’s rights are under threat. Forty-five years after American women got the right to choose abortion, one state after another is putting in place restrictions on this right. The American ‘pro-choice’ campaign faces a tough battle ahead.