Irish government approves abortion referendum bill

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Moya Crockett
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The ruling paves the way for the historic referendum, due to take place in late May.

The Irish government has agreed on the wording of the abortion referendum due to take place in late May.

The public will be able to vote on whether they want to repeal article 40.3.3, otherwise known as the eighth amendment, The Guardian reports. The eighth amendment states that an unborn foetus and a pregnant woman have an equal right to life, effectively banning abortion in all but the most extreme circumstances.

At a cabinet meeting on International Women’s Day, the government also confirmed what abortion regulations will replace the eighth amendment if it is repealed. The Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar said that in the event of a repeal vote, legislation will be introduced allowing unrestricted abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

Ireland 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. Under the eighth amendment - which was introduced in 1983, a time when contraception was also illegal in Ireland - abortions are only permitted 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. The UN Human Rights Committee said in 2016 that it considered Ireland’s current abortion laws to be “cruel, inhuman and degrading”.

 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who recently confirmed the referendum would take place

“This referendum is about asking our citizens to allow women to make major decisions for themselves,” said Varadkar. “It’s about trusting women to decide, in the early weeks of their pregnancy, what’s right for them and their families.

“And it’s about trusting our doctors to decide when continuing with a pregnancy is a risk to the life or health of a woman.

“Above all it’s about trusting Irish people to consider this matter in depth, with compassion and empathy, as I know they will.”

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.

ireland abortion referendum repeal the 8th

Repeal the 8th campaigners protesting in Dublin.

For years, Irish women and men have been fighting to Repeal the 8th – the official name of the campaign to legalise abortion in Ireland. Ailbhe Smyth, a spokesperson for the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, said: “This is a historic and momentous day for Ireland, and for the women of Ireland in particular. It has been a very long time coming.”

She added: “We need abortion care that is safe and regulated, in line with best medical practice, and today brings us a crucial step forward in trying to achieve this important goal.”

In a recent interview with, Irish actress, writer and producer Sharon Horgan said that she was optimistic that Ireland would vote to repeal the eighth amendment.

“It’s such an emotional, difficult subject… [But] just the thought of it finally shifting is exciting, so I can only hope,” she said. “I feel positive about it. But everyone will have to make a mad push for it, so we’ll just do what we can.”

Images: iStock / Rex Features