With most of the votes counted, the people of Ireland have voted to overturn the complete ban on all abortions, including in the cases of rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormality, that had been written into the constitution by a large margin of 68%-32%, pretty much in line with early exit polls but contradicting opinion polls that had shown a close vote. For an overwhelmingly Catholic country, this is a huge deal, and the ‘yes’ vote won in every region, even in the most staunchly Catholic ones. What is astounding, as Robert Mackey informs us, is that it was only as recently as 1983 that the ban was imposed by a huge margin of 67-33%. This is a huge change in opinion in a short time.
Part of the reason for the change is undoubtedly the low standing of the Catholic church in Ireland itself with its many abuses and cover ups of pedophile priests, abuse of young pregnant women in homes run by nuns, and the forcible and secret adoptions of their children. Unsurprisingly, the Catholic church kept a relatively low-profile during the referendum, urging its ‘no’ vote mainly to its parishioners but that did not help.
Another factor is the tragic case of a young woman who died because doctors refused to perform an abortion that would have saved her life. That was a galvanizing factor because it showed so clearly the cruelty of the law.
The joy for many Yes voters was tempered by memories of women whose lives were damaged or cut short by the ban, particularly Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist who died in 2012 because doctors in the west of Ireland had refused to perform an abortion to save her life during a three-day miscarriage. A shrine dedicated to her sprang up on Friday in Dublin, adorned with flowers and messages from those who voted Yes to the proposed repeal of the Eighth Amendment.
Mackey provides a round up of the joyful reactions to the result.
The vote does not mean that abortion is now legal. The focus shifts to the Irish parliament that has to legislate on the limits of abortion availability.
Ireland’s health minister, Simon Harris, said on Saturday he would ask for cabinet approval as early as Tuesday to turn the draft law into a formal legislative text. The prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said he planned to have the new law enacted by the end of the year.
Between 12 and 24 weeks, abortion will be available only in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, a risk to a woman’s life or a risk of serious harm to the health of the mother. After 24 weeks, termination will be possible in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
There will be provision for conscientious objection among medical practitioners, although doctors will be obliged to transfer care of the pregnant woman to another doctor.
The size of this victory should give pause to those legislators who think that they can impose stringent restriction by law the way that right-wing US politicians do.