Long Reads

Everything you need to know about the Eighth Amendment

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Elle Griffiths
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Ireland is about to vote in a once-in-a-lifetime referendum to scrap the Eighth Amendment, which prevents women from getting abortions. Here, freelance writer Elle Griffiths explains what exactly the Eighth Amendment is and how you can help support the campaign to repeal it.

Last September, I boarded a flight from London to Dublin at 10:30pm, alone. I was heading over to Ireland for a family funeral, that of a great aunt who I’d been very fond of since I was a little girl. I knew there’d be an all-the-trimmings wake and Catholic mass as my aunt was very religious. But I was also looking forward to seeing some relatives I hadn’t seen in a long time.

The flight was but a third full as we took off, unbeknownst to me, into Storm Eileen. When we suddenly dropped like a stone in the pea soup over the Irish Sea, I instinctively grabbed my arm rest and let out a gasp. As I did, I made eye contact with an older woman and we shared a few nervous laughs. When we came into land in similarly bumpy fashion, the woman began to blaspheme uncontrollably in the highly creative way the Irish are often known to, and I smiled to myself thinking of my own family, looking forward to seeing them. 

The air conditioning on the plane had been freezing, so we had all kept our coats on for most of the flight. But as we stood in the aisle waiting to disembark, the heat cranked up and the woman removed her coat. She was wearing a ‘REPEAL THE EIGHTH’ jumper. She was also wearing a crucifix.

Ireland is changing. And this year, in May, it will hopefully change drastically for the better. 

Everyone of sensible mind in the UK is (quite rightly) up in arms at the prospect of anti-abortion Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming Prime Minister, and we recoil in horror at the Handmaid’s Tale-esque rhetoric that escapes the mouths of Mike Pence and his acolytes across the Atlantic. But the fact is, Irish women are already living with the reality of abortion being illegal – and have been for a long time.

They’ve travelled to England and home again on the same day, bleeding and alone. They’ve faced the option of carrying a baby with terrible foetal abnormalities to term, knowing they won’t survive, or get on a Ryanair flight among stag dos and couples on romantic mini-breaks to have a heartbreaking late-term abortion of a much wanted child. And if they haven’t done it themselves, they know someone who has, or know someone who has acquired abortion pills over the internet. Sadly, they’ll also most likely know women who couldn’t afford either choice and brought a child into the world they didn’t want and couldn’t provide for.

Women are always going to have abortions. But a new generation of Irish women may not have to face the additional stresses of travel, secrecy and desperation if the country chooses to repeal the Eighth Amendment this summer. 

What is the Eighth Amendment? 

The eighth amendment to the Irish constitution gave constitutional recognition to the rights of the unborn child, putting them on a par with women and therefore making it impossible for abortion to be legal in the Republic of Ireland without its repeal.

It was passed in 1983, during a bitter referendum, with 67% in favour and 33% against; in the 35 years since, more than 170,000 women have had to leave Ireland to access abortions abroad, mainly in England. And at least 1,000 women a year order abortion pills online, risking 14 years in jail by doing so.

But in the same time period, Ireland and Irish society have also changed significantly.

The power of the Catholic Church’s conservative elements is diminishing, having been rocked by a series of scandals throughout the 1990s. And in 2015, Ireland led the world in being the first country to legalise same sex marriage through a popular vote.

Repeal the Eighth campaigners are hopeful there is now a progressive majority of people who want to grant women bodily autonomy and full reproductive healthcare in their own country. No-one under the age of 52 has had a chance to vote on the issue. But since the government pledged last month to hold another referendum, we know the younger generation will now get a chance to have their say.

When will the new referendum take place?

An exact date has not yet been announced, though Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told the public that the referendum will take place before the end of May 2017. Both he and Minister for Health, Simon Harris, have said that late May is very likely. 

Campaigners on both sides are on tenterhooks waiting for an official date to be announced, but in the meantime there is much to be done. A recent Irish Times poll gave the repeal campaign a clear lead at 56 percent, but campaigners are urging pro-choice voters not to get complacent. 

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

What are the potential outcomes of the referendum?

A vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment would then see the government legislate for abortion to be available on request up to 12 weeks. This would put Ireland on a similar standing to other European countries such as France and Germany – but not the UK, where abortion is not technically available on request. A vote to keep the Eighth Amendment would leave the – currently untenable – situation as it is. 

I’m Irish but I live in the UK/abroad, can I still vote?

Whether or not you’re eligible to vote depends on how long you have been living outside of Ireland. Under Section 11 (3) of the Electoral Act 1992, Irish citizens overseas may retain full voting rights for a period of 18 months, should they intend to return to Ireland within that time frame. If the referendum is indeed called before the end of May, anyone who has left Ireland on or after December 1 2016 will be eligible.

Anyone studying on an ERASMUS course may be eligible for a postal vote (check with your local authority for details), but everyone else will have to vote in person in Ireland. This gives a conservative estimate of 40,000 Irish people abroad eligible to vote.

If you meet this criteria then please make sure you’re on the register. This month the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (LIARC) launched #hometovote to encourage their fellow Irish abroad to negotiate annual leave with their employers, make plans for travel and come home with them for the Eighth Amendment referendum. 

The same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, which successfully brought marriage equality to the Republic of Ireland, saw a huge homecoming of Irish expats determined to have their say. Social media was awash with the #hometovote hashtag, videos went viral of groups of Irish strangers singing aboard the ferry from Holyhead, and many were greeted with welcome banners in airports and ferry ports all over the country after coming from as far afield as Australia and the US. The hope is that this power can be harnessed all over again. 

I’m not Irish/can’t vote but I’d like to show my support for Irish women, is there anything I can do? 

Of course! You can donate financially to the repeal the eighth campaign, for one. As a grassroots, volunteer-dominated campaign it constantly needs cash.

It’s also important that Irish people who aren’t eligible to vote themselves start conversations with friends and family members who are. This can be tricky, as abortion remains a sensitive subject in many families. LIARC produced this guide for talking about the Eighth Amendment over Christmas dinner. And while the turkeys have long since been eaten, its advice still stands: have the debate respectfully and with hard facts, at any time of year.

There will also be plenty of opportunities for canvassing, and you can go home for a visit and find your local group here. Canvassing is, of course, not restricted to Irish citizens, so sympathetic tourists could always combine a holiday with a local canvassing shift. It’s a great way to meet people and get involved with something positive.

Additionally, good old-fashioned letter writing is a great way to get the pro-choice argument across. Writing a letter to any of the big national Irish newspapers, or to your tiny local one, can have a huge impact. Many older people still rely on print news as their only access to the debate and a well reasoned letter could feasibly sway people on the fence. If you’re stuck on how to get started, LIARC have some pointers here.

Whatever you decide to do to help, keep at it. There’s a long slog ahead and it’s never been more important to have all hands on deck. The women of Ireland deserve better – it’s 2018, and they’re well overdue their full human rights. 

Images: Getty Images / Rex Features