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Girls & Women

Ireland Votes ‘Yes’ to Legalise Abortion in Landslide Referendum

The Republic of Ireland has voted decisively to repeal a key constitutional clause that restricts abortion rights in a historic referendum that has grasped the attention of the world.

The landslide victory means Ireland will now take steps to legalise abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

With results in from all 40 constituencies, the final result stands at 66.4% "yes" and 33.6% "no". 

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It’s currently illegal to terminate pregnancy in Ireland including in cases of rape, incest, or abnormality in the foetus, and it’s punishable by up to 14 years in prison for both the recipient and the medical professional who carries it out.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of women in recent decades have travelled abroad to secure a termination. Approximately 3,500 women do so every year, often to the UK, while 2,000 self-medicate with illegal abortion pills annually, according to the Guardian.

Abortion has been permissible if a woman’s life is in danger since 2014, following public outcry at the death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar, who lost her life after a lengthy miscarriage. Now, legislation will plan to permit abortions on pregnancies up to 24 weeks if there’s a threat to the mother’s life.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Taoiseach — a title used to describe the Irish head of government — had earlier said that the referendum was a “once in a generation decision.” If the result had been different, another vote would have been unlikely for at least 35 years, he said.

In response to an Irish Times exit poll that last night predicted a 68% - 32% win for the “yes” campaign, Varadkar described the result as “democracy in action”.

But it's a campaign that has been fiercely fought by both sides.

"There are people who are deeply broken-hearted at this outcome," said John McGuirk, communications director at Save the 8th, a leading anti-abortion campaign. An official statement earlier conceded defeat, describing the loss as a “tragedy of historic proportions.”

What was Ireland voting for?

The focus of the debate was a specific article in the Irish constitution, known as the eighth amendment, that grants “equal right to life” between a pregnant mother and her unborn foetus.

Abortion has been illegal in Ireland since 1861. But a 1983 referendum sought to enshrine the ban in the constitution, and comfortably won. There were further referendums in 1992 and 2002 to establish, amongst other things, whether suicidal thoughts could be grounds for abortion, and on both occasions the suggestion was defeated. From 2014 a new law permitted abortion to protect loss of life, including from suicide.

The ballot paper for this referendum did not actually mention abortion, instead asking: ”Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the undermentioned Bill?"

The winning pro-choice “yes” vote fought for a repeal of the article in order to pass legislation to legalise unrestricted abortions on pregnancies up to 12 weeks. The losing pro-life “no” campaign fought to retain it.

With the final result confirmed, the constitution is now set to change.

How many people voted?

Over 3.2 million people were registered to vote, according to the Department of Housing and Local Government. It includes over 100,000 new voters who joined the register in the run-up to the referendum, more than the 65,000 who joined for the same-sex marriage vote.

It's reported that turnout was up to 70% in some areas, with figures from a number of polling stations showing a stronger turnout than the 2015 marriage equality referendum — which had a turnout of 61%

Many travelled thousands of miles to return to Ireland and cast their ballot. Viral stories on social media revealed that some had flown from Argentina, Los Angeles, Australia, and more to have their say on the result.

How has the country reacted?

The online reaction has reflected the result. The “yes” camp were jubilant with the result, with celebrations spilling out into the streets across the country.

“This is a resounding roar from the Irish people for repealing the 8th amendment,” said Orla O’Connor, co-director for leading repeal campaign Together for Yes.

However, “no” campaigners expressed regret at the decision, and reiterated their commitment to oppose any new legislation and the formation of abortion clinics in the country.

"Every time an unborn child has his or her life ended in Ireland, we will oppose that, and make our voices known,” read an official statement from Save the 8th. "Abortion was wrong yesterday. It remains wrong today. The constitution has changed, but the facts have not."

What are the next steps?

First, the eighth amendment will be replaced with the words: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

This amends the constitution, but not the original law passed in 1861. Draft legislation will then be submitted to parliament to replace it. You can view the policy paper here.

Despite certain opposition, the legislation is expected to pass, and abortion for pregnancies up to 12 weeks will become legal in Ireland. Experts anticipate it could become legal before the end of the year.

The Guardian reports that the result will have far reaching consequences across the world, and could inspire activists fighting for abortion rights internationally. It’s currently illegal in Northern Ireland in all but the most extreme circumstances, but it's expected that there will now be mounting pressure for similar change.

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