Northern Ireland news

Abortion referendum: Q&A

Campaigners at the official launch of the Save the 8th Vote NO campaign. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire.
Michael McHugh, Press Association

The Republic goes to the polls on Friday for a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment of the constitution which restricts access to abortion.

Here are the answers to some key questions on the issue.

- What is the Eighth Amendment?

It is a clause in the constitution which was written after a previous referendum on the issue in 1983 recognised the equal right to life of the unborn child and the mother.

- What effect has it had?

In 1992, women were officially given the right to travel abroad, mostly to the UK, to obtain terminations. Pro-repeal campaigners said almost 170,000 have done so. Tanaiste Simon Coveney, has argued that effectively left Britain deciding the law for Irish women around the procedure and it was time to take back control in Ireland.

- What about the women who stay in the Republic of Ireland?

The campaign to liberalise abortion gathered momentum after an Indian dentist, Savita Halappanavar, died in hospital in Galway aged 31 when she was refused an abortion during a miscarriage. Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar, said she repeatedly asked for a termination but was refused because there was a foetal heartbeat. Health service reviewers later identified failings in her care.

- Did anything change?

In 2013 legislation was amended to allow terminations under certain tightly restricted circumstances - the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. When doctors felt a woman's life was at risk due to complications from the pregnancy, or from suicide, they were permitted to carry out an abortion. It followed a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that terminations were permitted where the mother's life was at risk.

- Was that concession enough for those seeking liberalisation?

Not according to the women who were still travelling to the UK in their droves for procedures. Among them were Amanda Mellet and her husband James, who took their case to the UN's Human Rights Committee. The Committee called for reform to give women greater rights and said the ban on abortion caused cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. In 2016, for the first time in its history, the Irish State c ompensated a woman, Mrs Mellet, for the trauma caused by forcing her to travel to Britain for an abortion.

- What approach did the government adopt?

It established a public advisory body, a Citizen's Assembly, which recommended introduction of unrestricted access to abortion. Because of the Eighth Amendment, a public poll was needed before new laws could be passed, and earlier this year the country's Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy, set the date for the abortion referendum as Friday May 25. The Government has published draft legislation to be introduced if the amendment is repealed which would allow relatively free abortions, subject to consultation with a medical professional and after a short waiting period, up to 12 weeks after gestation and up to 24 weeks with restrictions. If, after 12 weeks, a woman's life is threatened or there could be serious harm to her health two doctors will consider whether to allow the procedure. Terminations will not be carried out after the foetus becomes viable, following 24 weeks of pregnancy.

A poster calling for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire.

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