A million times Yes: Ireland votes to liberalise abortion laws

Image: Blue-Haired Lawyer

The Republic of Ireland has voted by a landslide to liberalise its abortion laws. The Irish electorate voted by 66.4% to 33.6% to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the constitution which granted foetuses equal right to life as the pregnant woman, and prohibited abortions under almost all circumstances. In a country which has a population of 4.7 million, 1.3 million people voted Yes to liberalising abortion laws.

The decisive result comes as a surprise as it was predicted that the vote would be very close, up until exit polls were released last night. Polls by Irish Times and the national broadcaster RTE, put Yes ahead at 68% and 69% respectively. The exit polls suggested support for repeal among the majority of society, including rural voters and the older generation who had been expected to oppose the liberalisation of abortion laws.

For many today’s result represents a sea-change in Irish society, and a further loosening of the traditional bond between the state and the Roman Catholic church in Ireland.  In 1995, 50.2% voted to allow divorce; in 2015, 62% said Yes to same-sex marriage; and today, 68% have approved the liberalisation of abortion law. These referendums present a picture of an Irish society becoming slowly more socially liberal after decades of being a traditionally conservative Catholic country. The Eighth Amendment was approved by 66.9% in 1983; today’s result almost exactly mirrors that majority, demonstrating the reversal in Irish attitudes.

The referendum was hard-fought for, and the vote actually taking place was in some ways itself a victory. Abortion became a politically salient issue in Ireland following the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. The 31-year old dentist was carrying her first child and died in a Galway hospital from blood-poisoning resulting from miscarriage, after she was refused a termination on the grounds that the foetus still had a heartbeat. Savita’s case became a driving force in motivating pro-choice activists and brought the Eighth Amendment to the political foreground.

Today, Savita’s parents welcomed the result from their home in India; her father, Andanappa Yalag, said, “I want to thank you so much. I want to say ‘Thank you’ to our brothers and sisters in Ireland for voting Yes”, and requested that any legislation be called “Savita’s Law”.

While pro-choice activists celebrate victory in the Republic of Ireland, questions remain over Northern Ireland’s abortion law. Northern Ireland has the strictest abortion laws in the UK, with legal terminations being prevented in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. The British Women and Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt said the vote in the south of Ireland gave “hope” to NI. Many, including Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, have called upon Theresa May to legislate directly for Northern Ireland’s abortion provisions. However, the DUP is fiercely anti-abortion and any move to liberalise Northern Ireland’s strict laws will come up against opposition from the unionist party. Yet, the DUP and other pro-life parties and organisations may find such a position untenable now abortion is legal not only in the rest of the UK, but also on the rest of the island of Ireland.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has branded the result a ‘quiet revolution’; the vote in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment represents the culmination of a seismic change in Ireland. The country has transitioned into a socially liberal country, shrugging off much of its ties to the Catholic Church which once defined Ireland.