Repealing the Eighth: A Brief History

On the 25th May the people of Ireland are heading to the polls to vote whether or not to repeal the eighth amendment. In simpler terms, they are having a referendum on the legalisation of abortion.

Ireland’s case is unique: although abortion has been illegal since 1861, a referendum on the issue in 1983 placed further restrictions on the procedure by giving legal acknowledgement to the life of the unborn. Consequently, the status of the foetus is equal to that of the mother carrying it. This, specifically, is what the eighth amendment is.

The insertion of the eighth amendment into the constitution has marked Irish abortion laws distinct from those in other countries. While the restriction of abortion in most other countries is flexible in life threatening medical situations, this has been totally illegal in Ireland for many years because of the foetus’ equal right to life as the mother. Consequently, Irish abortion laws are much more complex than most would assume. This means that the referendum later cannot simply be boiled down to a matter of pro-life versus pro-choice. Therefore, a range of issues must be addressed before making an informed vote. The best way to grasp these issues is by looking at the history of the eighth.

Despite the fact that abortion was already illegal in Ireland, conservative Catholics and politicians became concerned that this would change after the partial legalisation of contraception under the Health (Family Planning) Act 1979. For conservative circles, this legislation marked a significant watershed of Ireland’s image as a staunchly Catholic nation and were concerned that this would create a slippery slope leading to the legalisation of other distinctly non-Catholic activities: namely divorce and abortion. This was further escalated by the infamous Roe v Wade case which effectively legalised abortion in the United States.

Indeed, the 1980s marked a surge in conservative activism In Ireland, with the foundation of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) in 1981. PLAC sought to prevent a similar outcome to Roe v Wade from occurring in Ireland and lobbied the main political parties for an amendment to the constitution. As a result, a Bill was introduced to the Dail in November 1982 and by the following September, the Irish people asked to vote on the insertion of the following statement into the constitution:

“The State acknowledges the right to the unborn and, with due regard, to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by it laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

The amendment was passed by a vote of 66.9%, although only 53% of the electorate turned up to vote.

Feature story in Magill, a controversial Irish political magazine, in the aftermath of the 1983 Referendum

However, since then complication upon complication has arisen, challenging the morality of the amendment. Six months after the amendment was passed, a fifteen year old school girl, Ann Lovett, died giving birth outside a grotto to the Virgin Mary in her hometown of Granard in Co. Longford. Lovett’s death and secret pregnancy chilled the Irish public, however, her story echoed that of many Irish women forced into hiding and desperation as a result of the intense climate around the issue.

The first legal challenge to the amendment came later in 1991 in what came to be known as the ‘X’ case. The case involved a fourteen year old girl, subsequently known as ‘X’, becoming pregnant after being sexually abused by a family friend. After reporting the abuse to the police, the girl’s family inquired whether tissue from an aborted foetus would be sufficient evidence for a conviction. Upon discovering the intention of ‘X’ to travel to England to procure an abortion, the Irish authorities put a travel injunction on the family, consequently making it impossible for ‘X’ to obtain her abortion. ‘X’, as a result of her injunction, became increasingly depressed and threatened suicide. The authorities’ chilling response to this was that the probable suicide of a fourteen year old girl was not as grave as the definite abortion of her foetus.

The ‘X’ case prompted a huge public outcry which prompted the Irish government to lift the injunction on ‘X’ and remove all legal restrictions placed on women desiring to travel for abortion. As a result, it uncovered an unacknowledged truth that thousands of women were travelling overseas to procure abortions in spite of the eighth amendment. Figures suggest that from the insertion of the amendment to 2016, approximately 168,703 Irish women have accessed abortion services in the UK (source: Irish Family Planning Services). Indeed, the ‘X’ case and subsequent figures have starkly alerted the fact that the eighth amendment does not prevent abortion, it merely forces it out of Irish borders.

The most complex and high profile problem regarding the eighth amendment, however, came in 2012 with the death of Savita Halappanavar. Savita was pregnant with a much wanted baby but tragically began to miscarry at seventeen weeks. Due to the medical complications which arose from the miscarriage, Savita requested a medically induced abortion from her hospital on the 21st October, only to be told by her nurse that Ireland was a “Catholic country” where abortion could not be obtained. Distressed by the situation, Savita continued to push her choice, however, the delay in her termination led to the development of sepsis, which caused her to have a cardiac arrest. She died on the 28th October, age 31 years old.

Candlelit vigil in Co. Galway marking Savita’s death

Savita’s death caused national and international outcry, forcing the Irish government to reconsider the laws relating to abortion. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was implemented in response to Halappanavar’s death, allowing abortions to be carried out in the case of a physical or mental danger to the mother’s life.

However many critics have argued that this law does not go far enough. Cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality are not included under the act’s provisions, and the fact still remains that the foetus’ life is equal to that of the mother’s. Although the act was put in place to prevent further deaths similar to Savita’s, the fact that the eighth amendment still remains puts a massive question mark on the possibility of this.

By looking at these cases, it becomes apparent that the eighth amendment is not simply a case of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ abortion. The eighth amendment created the precarious environment which led to the death of Ann and Savita, as well as the controversial judgement that ‘X’s suicidal thoughts and freedom of movement were of less value than the foetus inside of her. Indeed, for the sake of keeping Ireland ‘Catholic’, the eighth amendment has cast a serious grey area which endangers the health and wellbeing of all women in Ireland. Abortion in Ireland has turned this into a moral issue, rather than a medical one, and consequently women are being denied a procedure that some of them desperately need. Indeed, as the ‘X’ case shows, the eighth amendment fails to stop abortion, it merely diverts the act away from Irish soils, forcing women to travel and come back home without the vital aftercare that they need.

Whatever you decide to vote on the 25th May, I implore you to consider the complexities of this issue, and don’t simply vote on the principle of being ‘for’ or ‘against.’ This is an all-engrossing issue, and, like Savita, the eighth amendment might affect you, even if you don’t expect it to.



  1. Very well written Niamh but as a feminist and a practising Catholic and a mother of 4…..I would never allow this to become a complex issue.We are all children of God and when a baby/foetus is conceived,It is conceived by the actions of human beings but with the love of our Saviour who’s consideration is the only way forward for mothers who are facing an unplanned pregnancy.Science has brought us all to a great place of safety but conception is a sacred gift from God in all cases and it’s outcome needs to be left in the hands of our Savior.


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