Ireland’s government has announced that it will hold a referendum on abortion next year.
Abortion is currently illegal in Ireland under the predominantly Catholic country’s eighth amendment, which gives an unborn foetus and a pregnant woman an equal right to life.
The public will be able to vote on whether abortion should be legalised in May or June 2018, according to a statement from Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s government.
The eighth amendment was made law in 1983, a time when contraception was also illegal in Ireland. The country currently has some of the most draconian abortion laws in Europe, with terminations banned even in cases of rape, incest, if the mother’s health is at risk, or the foetus has fatal abnormalities.
Abortions are only legal if a pregnant woman is at risk of dying as a direct result of her pregnancy.
In addition, women can be jailed for up to 14 years for taking abortion pills ordered online. In October last year, thousands of women from Ireland and Northern Ireland (where abortion is also outlawed in almost all cases) shared their stories of taking illegal abortion pills, with most of them saying that they did not regret their decision and would recommend the pills to others.
Last year, the UN Human Rights Committee said that it considered Ireland’s abortion laws to be “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.
Thousands of women leave Ireland and travel to other countries for abortions every year. According to UK Department of Health statistics, at least 168,700 women and girls accessed UK abortion services between 1980 and 2016. More than 3,000 of these abortions took place in 2016 alone.
However, this number is believed to be an underestimation, as not every woman or girl who accesses abortion services in a foreign country will provide her Irish address. In addition, thousands of Irish women also go to countries other than the UK for abortions, such as the Netherlands.
In recent years, Irish women and men have been fighting to Repeal the 8th – the official name of the campaign to legalise abortion in Ireland. On this year’s International Women’s Day, thousands of people marched in cities across Ireland to protest the ban.
Repeal the 8th activists also took part in the St Patrick’s Day parade in London. Last year, thousands of pro-choice campaigners in countries around the world organised protests in solidarity with women in Ireland.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who took office in Ireland in June this year and is Ireland’s first openly gay head of government, has previously said that he thought the eighth amendment was “too repressive”, according to The Telegraph.
While Ireland has traditionally been a conservative country, referendums have been seen to advance social change in recent years. In 2015, a referendum on whether same-sex marriage should be legalised was approved by just over 62% of voters.
In a statement, Varadkar said: “Any amendment to our constitution requires careful consideration by the people. They should be given ample time to consider the issues and to take part in well-informed public debate.
“Setting a timetable for the referendums to be held over the next two years will allow all involved in campaigning on the issues to plan ahead and to facilitate that public debate.”
A March for Choice will be taking place in Dublin on Saturday 30 September. You can find out more information here.