The 8th Amendment to Ireland’s constitution is one of the most draconian abortion restrictions in the developed world. Irish voters just decided to repeal it.
While votes are still being counted as of Saturday morning, two exit polls showed a huge margin — roughly 70-30 — in favor of repeal. Though exit polls are not always accurate, it is widely seen as implausible they could miss by enough for the amendment to stay in place. A leading anti-repeal group, Save the 8th, has conceded defeat, and Irish politicians are already discussing next steps for moving to a legal abortion regime.
The vote, held on Friday, is a historic victory for Irish feminists, who had been campaigning for the amendment’s repeal ever since it was passed in 1983. Pro-repeal sentiment was especially strong among young and urban voters, suggesting that a new left-leaning and secular majority had supplanted the more conservative Catholic older generation.
The Catholic Church’s influence over Irish politics has been in decline for years now, owing in part to a series of sexual assault and child abuse scandals; this referendum shows that a new secular Ireland is here to stay.
“The biggest change now versus 1983 is the collapse of the Roman Catholic cultural grip across broad swathes of the population,” says Niamh Hardiman, a political scientist at University College-Dublin.
It’s important to note that repeal does not mean abortion will automatically become legal. In order for that to happen, Ireland’s parliament will have to pass a law repealing the country’s statutory ban on abortion, which exists separately from the constitutional one, and set up a new system for regulated abortion.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who campaigned for repeal, has already released a draft bill that would remove all restrictions on abortions for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and permit it afterward only under specific circumstances (if the mother’s health were in danger, for example). These rules sound restrictive by US standards, but they are roughly in line with regulations across the European Union. The new rules would be substantially more liberal than current Irish law, which only permits abortion if failing to do so would cause the mother to die.
In the wake of the referendum’s victory, Varadkar’s bill is widely expected to pass — meaning that Irish women, and Ireland as a whole, are about to enter a brand new political era.
Abortion has been illegal in Ireland since at least 1861, when a ban was imposed by British authorities, and remained illegal after Ireland became independent in the early 20th century. But Ireland only took the extreme step of putting an abortion ban in the constitution in 1983, a reaction to the gains of the feminist movement both in Ireland and the broader Anglophone world.
In 1973, Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that the country’s ban on contraception was unconstitutional and that it violated citizens’ right to privacy. In the US, a similar court ruling on contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut) laid the groundwork for Roe V. Wade, which coincidentally also came down in 1973. Irish Catholic conservatives, looking at both the American case and the wider successes of the Irish feminist movement on issues like equality in the workplace, got spooked.
“There was a fear that a court case taken to the Irish courts, or then the European courts, would liberalize abortion in the same way access to contraceptives had been [liberalized],” Mary McAuliffe, a professor of gender studies at University College-Dublin, told me. “And so a campaign began, called the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, after the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 — when the Catholic right felt emboldened.”