The Ireland abortion referendum: what happens next?

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Moya Crockett
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Ireland’s abortion laws won’t change immediately following the referendum. Here’s everything you need to know. 

On Saturday 26 May, it was confirmed that Ireland had voted overwhelmingly in favour of repealing the eighth amendment, the legal provision that made abortion illegal in almost all circumstances.

The landslide result was the culmination of years of campaigning by grassroots feminist organisations, and has been widely interpreted as proof of Ireland’s increasingly liberal social and political values. With the exception of one county (Donegal) and one demographic (the over-65s), every region and group voted in favour of giving women control over their bodies and lives – proving that this was not a vote swung by urban millennials, but by a near-universal belief in the importance of choice.

However, because politics is never simple, Ireland’s abortion laws won’t be reformed immediately. Read on to find out more about what the next steps are for Ireland – and how this could also affect legislation in Northern Ireland.  

When will the new law come into effect? 

People celebrate the results of the referendum in Dublin 

Despite the ‘Yes’ vote in Friday’s referendum, abortion has not been made legal immediately to women in Ireland. Instead, the eighth amendment is set to be replaced with a clause stating that “provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy”.

After that, the Irish government is expected to bring legislation before the Dáil (Irish parliament) allowing women to have abortions ‘on request’ up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Women will also be permitted to have abortions between 12 and 24 weeks in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of serious harm to her health.

Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar has said that he plans to have the new law enacted before the end of 2018. 

What will it be called? 

Two women stand in front of the Savita Halappanavar mural in Dublin 

The yet-to-be-enacted law does not currently have a name. However, activists who campaigned to repeal the eighth amendment have backed a move to name it after Savita Halappanavar, the late dentist who has become a symbol of the fight for abortion rights in Irerland.

Halappanavar died in 2012 after being denied an abortion. A 31-year-old dentist living and working in Galway, she was 17 weeks pregnant with her first child when she started experiencing back pain. When she went to hospital, she was informed that she was having a miscarriage and there was no chance the foetus would survive.

Although Halappanavar begged for an abortion, she was repeatedly refused on the grounds that a foetal heartbeat could still be detected, giving it a right to life under the eighth amendment. As a result, she had to wait days until the foetus’ heartbeat stopped. She subsequently developed an infection and died of sepsis one week after arriving at hospital.

Over the weekend, a mural of Halappanavar in central Dublin became a shrine, surrounded by candles, flowers and notes and covered in stickers reading ‘Vote Yes’. On the day the results of the vote were announced, her father asked that the legislation allowing women to have an abortion be named ‘Savita’s law’.

“It should be named for her,” Andanappa Yalagi told the Irish Times.

Together for Yes – an umbrella group representing pro-repeal organisations – said it would support the move to name the law after Halappanavar. 

What does this mean for Northern Ireland? 

Yes campaigners in Dublin hold signs calling for Northern Ireland to liberalise its abortion rules on Saturday 26 May

The result of the Irish abortion referendum has no bearing on laws in Northern Ireland. However, in the wake of the landslide victory for the ‘Yes’ campaign, MPs from all UK parties have called on Prime Minister Theresa May to put pressure on Northern Ireland to reform its abortion laws.

Despite being part of the UK, abortion laws are far stricter in Northern Ireland than in England, Scotland and Wales. Women can only access terminations if their life is at risk, or if doctors believe that continuing with the pregnancy would pose a serious or permanent threat to their mental or physical health. Under Northern Irish law, fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and/or incest are not legitimate reasons for having an abortion.

Around 160 MPs have backed a cross-party letter, led by Labour MP Stella Creasy, calling on the government to take action on Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. According to The Sunday Times, at least seven Conservative women MPs back change, including Amber Rudd, Justine Greening, Maria Miller and women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt.

May’s government is currently being propped up by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which opposes abortion reform. The leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, said on Monday (28 May) that abortion was a “devolved matter”, meaning that it should not be dictated by the government in Westminster but rather debated and decided in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Downing Street has so far supported this stance.

However, Labour’s shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti said that May’s handling of the Northern Irish abortion issue would be “a test” of her self-professed feminism.

“You can’t have democracy without fundamental human rights, and the women of Northern Ireland have suffered for long enough,” Chakrabarti said. “I think Theresa May, really as a self-identifying feminist, needs to say: ‘Yes, I unveil statues of suffragists in Parliament Square, but the test of my feminism will be whether I guarantee fundamental human rights for women’.”

Images: Getty Images