Credit: Flickr / Giuseppe Milo

Emma O’Kane

The Republic of Ireland will hold a referendum at the end of May or early June this year, asking the public whether it should repeal the constitutional ban on abortion.

This refers to the 8th amendment, in place since 1983, which equates the life of a pregnant woman with that of a fetus. It reads: “The state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn child and, with due regard to the equal right of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right”.

The referendum proposes to repeal or delete the 8th amendment, adding a new provision to the constitution authorising the Oireachtas to legislate for the legalisation of abortion. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has confirmed his support for the availability of abortion without exceptional circumstance to be made available for women up to 12 weeks pregnant. Calling for abortion services to be “safe, legal and rare”, the debate that ensues will likely surround the contents of the replacement bill.

According to the UK Department of Health, 3,625 women and girls providing Irish addresses accessed abortion services in the UK in 2016. This number is considered to be an underestimation as some will intentionally not provide their Irish addresses and some travel to other European countries.

The call for this referendum follows campaigning by numerous human rights advocacy groups including the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), which also advocates the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, where the maximum sentence for having an abortion is life imprisonment. In 2017, a mother won the right to contend her prosecution after she bought her 15-year old daughter abortion pills online.

The Glasgow Guardian spoke to Sarah Murphy, a representative of the London-based branch of the ARC. Murphy welcomed the confirmation of a referendum in Ireland but, noting that this does little to uphold the human rights of women in Northern Ireland, said: “We do hope that it will shine a sharp spotlight on the absence of abortion provision in Northern Ireland, which is too often overlooked in British politics, save a few loud, lone voices in Westminster.

“Woman have always and will always need abortions, and exporting the problem to other parts of the UK is simply not a sustainable situation. Ultimately, Stormont representatives need to fulfil their obligations to provide healthcare to their constituents through the legislation and decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.”

The end of January marked the one year anniversary of the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly following the resignation of the deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness.