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Jessica Doran reports on the Irish government’s recent decision to hold a referendum on abortion next year.

Ireland’s Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar has announced that in May 2018 the Republic of Ireland will hold a referendum to re–evaluate the country’s abortion laws. Since 1983, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act has established the rights of the unborn child. This has made any termination of a child illegal unless in exceptional circumstances such as putting the mother in severe physical danger. The Catholic church has a major influence over Ireland’s political decision making, and are highly in favour in maintaining these strict abortion practices.

In 2012, as many as 84.2% of the population described themselves as Catholic, but more recently, surveys and referendums are noticing a decline in religiously influenced decision making amongst the population. Last year, Ireland became the first country to ask its electorate to legalise gay marriage, resulting in more than a 70% ‘yes’ vote in many parts of Dublin. Leo Varadkar is also Ireland’s first homosexual Prime Minister, despite the country’s previously strong homophobic stance. Perhaps this is a sign that Ireland is becoming more liberal and diverting from a traditionally Catholic political consensus.

‘surveys and referendums are noticing a decline in religiously influenced decision making among the population.’

Based upon the 2015 gay marriage referendum, it is evident Ireland are intent on enabling their country to decide the outcome of these controversial laws. Until last year, other countries such as the United Kingdom had legalised gay marriage based on the government’s decision alone. The decision to hold a referendum has raised the question as to whether the whole population should be voting on a decision that only concerns a marginal audience. Should heterosexual couples have voted on a gay couple’s right to marriage? And now, should a man be given the right to vote on what may be considered as a women’s rights issue?

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This question has been raised after those in favour of legalising abortion have targeted the argument as a cause for supporting women’s rights. Mumsnet took the question ‘should men be able to vote in Ireland’s abortion referendum’ with a mixed response. Whilst some insisted that both parents should have a say over the life of their unborn child, others insisted that men should not be allowed to dictate what a woman can do with her own body. Commenter SpaghettiAndMeatballs wrote: ‘it doesn’t sit right with me, the idea you can vote on something that will never affect you…Men being able to vote on what women do with their bodies is infantilising, placing them in a guardianship role that they do not have’.

‘The referendum could propose a monumental change for Ireland’

Ellen Jones, Epigram’s Features editor, agrees. ‘This is a really positive move, although monumentally delayed, by Ireland. In the 21st century, women should be able to enjoy relationships and sex without being punished and terrified if they were to end up pregnant. As students, we’re all here to get an education, to land a good job, and start a life which will set us up to start a family, if that’s what we want. A condom breaking, accidentally skipping a pill or contraception simply failing us, shouldn’t result in unprepared women faced with unplanned motherhood.’

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Currently, the law stands that women can face up to fourteen years imprisonment for taking abortion pills which they can purchase online. However, the risk of abortion remaining illegal has the potential to put women’s lives in more danger. The UK’s Abortion Act made abortion legal in 1967 for pregnancies up to twenty-four weeks (or no time limit if the woman’s life was at risk) partly for this reason. It is legal for Irish women to travel abroad to get an abortion, but on average this costs them up to £4,000 for the travel, accommodation and medical costs. The referendum could propose a monumental change for Ireland, and will affect the whole population whatever the outcome. It seems the Irish people will have a tough decision to make this following May.


What do you think about the referendum? Comment, or get in touch with Epigram’s Twitter and Facebook pages.

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