What is the 8th Amendment?
“The State acknowledges the right to life of 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 its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
That was the 8th Amendment.
Depending on your particular bent - the 8th Amendment, introduced by popular vote in 1983 is either - the establishment of the constitutional right to life of the foetus, or 1980s Catholic Ireland acting to type and enshrining the Western World’s most restrictive abortion laws in our most important legal text, complete with troubling ambiguity as to ‘what constitutes the unborn?’ and ‘what to do if the mother’s life is threatened by the unborn?’
The amendment’s vagueness was highlighted at the time by Attorney General Peter Sutherland, predicting the exact issues which would come to light in the ‘X Case’ of ‘92 - but in characteristic fashion the Irish ignored the legal advice of the land’s most trusted legal expert, and voted overwhelmingly in support of the 8th Amendment. The ‘83 referendum attracted a turnout of 53.7%, with 66.9% voting in favour and thus began the 35-year ordeal of repealing it.
Why the 8th Amendment?
It’s clichéd to apply blame to perfect storm conditions. And yet.
1980s Ireland was not a happy space. The economy was tanking, and unemployment rates had learned to fly, soaring to record highs. People who experienced the 80s will claim, straight-faced, that they didn't see the sun shine on Ireland till the 90s.
Consequently, politics was in flux. No one party seemed able to fix Ireland’s ills, so the voting public responded by voting buffet-style and tried a bit of everything. Prior to the ‘83 referendum, three general elections were held in the space of 18 months.
Then, tied into this, the 1973 Roe v Wade judgement in the States had encouraged nations across the globe to begin liberalising their abortion laws, especially in Western Europe. When a 'similar' judgement from the Irish courts to allow married couples to purchase contraception was delivered in ‘74, Irish Pro-Lifers were spooked and started to mobilise.
In ‘81 the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) lobby group was founded and suddenly Irish politicians experiencing huge difficulties forming a government, were gifted a bloc of 'single-issue' voters whose support could be relied upon provided they fortified the legal protections around the law banning abortion. Remember – at this point, abortion was already illegal in Ireland.
As an anthropological side-note, the Irish had developed an unhealthy habit in the 19th century of chaining their National Identity to their Catholicism and the events described above took place alongside the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Consequently, national and Catholic sentiments in the Republic were keenly felt. Therefore, given the Catholic Church's views on female bodily autonomy – females full stop – there was little doubt in anyone's mind that the 8th Amendment would pass.
So - 35 years on - who repealed the 8th?
Arguably you could say - we all did. Sixty-six-point-four percent voted to repeal the 8th. Near every demographic, male/female, urban/rural, 18-65, voted in their majority to repeal the 8th. The 65+ were the only group who voted to retain the 8th - and with that, 40% still voted to repeal.
Repealing the 8th Amendment is very much so an achievement that all Ireland can claim.
But repealing the 8th was a great deal more than showing up on May 25th and ticking a box. Who led the charge? Who rallied Ireland to come out and vote to repeal the 8th? Who is Ireland’s champion? That moniker must be claimed by Ireland’s youth - in particular, Ireland’s young women.
Elder stateswomen of the repeal campaign, including Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness, kept the torches lit since ‘83, keeping the pro-choice argument alive through some of Ireland’s darker social history. Minor victories were secured in 1992 with the right to travel and the right to information being secured. They endured the disappointing result of the 2002 referendum, when the Irish people refused to extend abortion rights to women experiencing suicidal ideation.
The Pro-Choice mantle was taken up by Ireland’s young women in 2010, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Ireland’s position on abortion. A year later the UN made its thoughts known, encouraging Irish politicians to pay attention once more to the ‘Irish Problem’.
The catalysing moment of the movement though came with the tragic death of Galway Dentist, Savita Halappanavar, who was refused an abortion following complications during pregnancy, and ultimately succumbed to septicaemia. The callous, cruel and inhumane nature of the 8th Amendment was laid bare to the Irish people, and Ireland’s women decided enough was enough.
Wide scale protests, candlelight vigils and marches swept the nation, as women, young and old mobilised to remove the yoke of the 8th Amendment from their bodily autonomy.
In 2013, The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed - legislation akin to spitting on a flaming inferno - considering the 170,000 Irish women that had travelled abroad to seek an abortion since 1980. Irish women were not sated, nor distracted by the limp response. The Repeal Campaign rallied, gained numbers, and began agitating for real change - namely the removal of the 8th Amendment from the Irish Constitution.
The initial tremors of the youthquake were felt, as young Irish women took ownership of the issue. The iconic Repeal Jumper - its stark white on black type - was designed by Anna Cosgrave allowing Irish women and men to wear their feelings on their sleeve, back and front. Abortion, women’s experience of travelling for an abortion, and a woman’s need for reproductive rights became something not just alright but right to discuss. Silence around the issue was broken by Ireland’s young women.
The 2015 Marriage Referendum trained a new generation in grassroots organisation, campaigning, and impactful politicking.
In 2016 the Citizens’ Assembly convened to discuss and consider the 8th Amendment.
In 2017 they published their report advocating for the repeal of the 8th Amendment and the introduction of abortion up to 12 weeks in all circumstances - foreshadowing the revelation on May 26th that Ireland is considerably more progressive and liberal than it had long been labelled. On its publication, few believed the Citizens’ Assembly was truly representative giving its progressive decision.
Together for Yes, the official campaign body for repeal - the umbrella group for over 70 pro-choice groups in Ireland - organised the final chapter, mobilising Ireland’s youth, and putting in place the campaign machinery and resources needed to stamp out the 8th Amendment.
The USI (Union of Students in Ireland) came out in force, under the banner of Students for Choice, organising canvassing, information stalls, leafleting, and most importantly, huge registering drives - ensuring every Irish student had the opportunity to register to vote. 125,000 new voters were registered in the run up May 25th, dwarfing previous efforts to entice young people to vote. The youth were primed and armed with their polling cards.
As international pro-life monies flooded into the debate funding the likes of ICBR (Irish Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform) - those of abortion poster notoriety – they faced the stunning backlash of the Radical Queers Resist (RQR) group, who shielded the public from grotesque imagery with Pride flags and solid pro-choice brilliance.
In the week prior to voting day, #HomeToVote started to trend as thousands of young Irish expats, forced from Irish shores by the recession returned home to vote yes, some sponsored by the 3,800 members of the ‘Abroad for Yes’ Facebook group who offered to pay their travel fares. Some travelled from as far away as Argentina, Australia and LA, just to have their say in this historic vote.
#Menforyes trended on Twitter as Together for Yes and young Irish women called on their brothers, dads, grandads and male friends to support their call for reproductive rights. Worried that some men would think abortion was a women’s issue and abstain from voting, young women recognised that they needed every shred of support and mobilised the vote for change.
But, ultimately, it was the young Irish, especially young Irish women who were the bodies of change in this historic episode. Eighty-seven-percent of 18-24 years old votes decided that repealing the 8th referendum was the only choice, with a 94% increase in the turnout of female voters aged 18-24 years old.
The first exit polls were published late on May 25th - about 10pm - and the result was clear. Ireland had repealed the 8th. The 8th Amendment had been shredded by public opinion. Ireland’s youth, Irish women, young Irish women, had defeated the 8th.
With a turnout of 64.1%, 1,429,981 people - 66.4% of voters decided the only choice was Yes.
In the wake of the vote, political parties scrambled to claim ownership of the occasion. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris were held up for acclaim - ironic considering their party had stood over the passing of the 8th Amendment. Chameleonic politics at its finest.
But we know that the true victors, the champions of this cause are Ireland’s youth - Ireland’s young women who rallied to reclaim the country that had mistreated them for so long. They recognised there was something to be saved and seized it for the country’s future. After 35 years, hard fought, they repealed the 8th!