Everything you need to know about Ireland’s upcoming abortion referendum

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Moya Crockett
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Your cheat sheet to the vote that could make history for women in Ireland.

On Friday 25 May, people in Ireland will vote on whether they want abortion to be legalised. But what is at stake, and which side is predicted to win?

Read on for a breakdown of all the issues.

What are people voting on?

Voters will be asked to say whether or not they want to repeal article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, otherwise known as the Eighth Amendment.

The Eighth Amendment states that an unborn foetus and a pregnant woman have an equal right to life, meaning that abortions are only permitted if a pregnant woman is at risk of dying as a direct result of her pregnancy. Terminations are illegal even in cases of rape, incest, if the mother’s health is at risk or the foetus has foetal abnormalities.

For more on the amendment and what it means for women, click here

Signs promoting both sides of the debate ahead of the abortion referendum on 25 May 

Which side is expected to win?

The most recent polls are tight, but indicate that the ‘Yes’ side (who are in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment) has pulled ahead.

The results of one major opinion poll by Irish newspaper the Sunday Business Post showed that 56% are in favour of voting to repeal the Eighth Amendment, a three-point increase since the same question was asked a month ago.

Less than a third (27%) said they planned on voting ‘No’ in the referendum, an increase of one point compared to last month. Fourteen percent said they didn’t know how they would vote, while 3% refused to answer the question.

A second poll, carried out by The Sunday Times and published five days before the referendum, put the ‘Yes’ side at 52% and the ‘No’ side on 24%. Once the undecideds are taken out of the equation, that poll shows the ‘Yes’ side leading by 68-32.

Another poll published in The Irish Times on 17 May placed support for removal of the Eighth Amendment at 58% versus 42%, once undecideds are excluded. 

Does that mean the ‘Yes’ side are definitely going to win?

No. Polls are notoriously unreliable ways of predicting the results of elections and referendums: few polls forecast that the UK would vote to leave the EU, for example, or that Trump would become president.

In part, that’s because many people lie when faced with a pollster asking them which way they plan on voting – particularly if they think their answer will be unpopular or divisive. Others simply dislike sharing their political preferences, considering them a private matter.

Polls also don’t always survey huge swathes of people: the Sunday Business Post poll mentioned above, for example, asked more than 1,000 people how they planned on voting. That’s a big group, but not huge enough to guarantee that its results will be representative of the population at large. 

What happens if you get an abortion in Ireland at the moment?

Any woman who has an abortion in Ireland – including women who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest – can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison. Women can also be jailed for up to 14 years for taking abortion pills ordered online.

Healthcare professionals who provide women with terminations can also be prosecuted. Supplying a pregnant women with the two drugs required for a medical abortion – methotrexate and misoprostol – carries the same 14-year sentence as taking them.

Doctors can be jailed for 14 years if they comply with a dying woman’s request to have an abortion, if they think there is even a slim chance that the woman might survive. 

Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has indicated that he supports a ‘Yes’ vote 

What abortion regulations will replace the Eighth Amendment if it is repealed?

At a cabinet meeting on International Women’s Day, 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.

This will put Ireland on level pegging with predominantly Christian countries including Uruguay and Greece, where abortion is also available ‘on demand’ until 12 weeks of pregnancy. In the UK, abortion is legal to a limit of 24 weeks.

Who opposes the repeal of the amendment?

The Catholic Church in Ireland has implored its followers to vote ‘No’ in the referendum. However, Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin has argued that it is not a religious issue, but a moral one.

“The innate dignity of every human life is a value for the whole of society – for people of all faiths and none,” he said in January. “It is rooted in reason as well as in faith. To take away an innocent human life can never be simply a matter of personal choice.”

Have any famous faces come out in support of repealing the amendment?

The ‘Yes’ side has support from Irish celebrities including actors Saoirse Ronan, Sharon Horgan, Cillian Murphy and Liam Neeson, comedian Aisling Bea and musician Hozier.

Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Fein, has also been a vocal advocate for repealing the amendment. On 19 May, she said that the Eighth Amendment “has caused and continues to cause untold suffering to women”, including causing “further trauma to victims of rape” and “[forcing] young girls to import abortion pills illegally at great danger to themselves”.

“At all times in this campaign we must ground ourselves in respect and fact and recognise that every day women in this country are suffering under the eighth amendment,” McDonald said.

Taoiseach Varadkar, a former GP, has also indicated that he supports a ‘Yes’ vote. Speaking on radio station RTÉ on 18 May, he said: “If there is a ‘No’ vote on Friday, it is only time before someone haemorrhages or bleeds to death.”

“I hope the majority of people in the country will take that this really is a personal and private matter,” Varadkar continued. “That voting ‘Yes’ does not necessarily mean you are endorsing abortion, that you think it is a good thing.

“I doubt anyone actually thinks it’s a good thing. But you are recognising that everyone has the right to their own individual sense of morality.”

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