The 8th Amendment repealed – what’s changed?

Alice Matty and Donncha Murphy explore the history of abortion legislation in Ireland, and reflect on its social impact over the last 70 years

With the celebration of Trinity News’ 70th edition, we reflect on how the social context and political landscape of Ireland has changed over the last 70 years. Ireland, and how we construct our relationships today, looks almost unrecognisable to the 1950s, specifically with the repeal of the 8th amendment.

Social context in Ireland pre-referendum

In the 1950s and 60s, Irish society was characterised by its conservatism and the dominance of the Catholic Church. Social morality fell exactly in line with Church teachings. Divorce, homosexuality and abortion were unlawful.

Open discussion on the topic of abortion was essentially non-existent in Irish society, and within Trinity, it was minimal. The 1960s offers the first glimpse of the question being raised, but the discussion was heavily sanitised, operating within the framework of Christian morality. A debate held by the TCD Law Society in 1965 declared that “Abortion is an evil necessity“ and Trinity News articles made ‘‘the Christian case’’ for family planning. 

During the 70s, the tides of change seemed imminent. The 1973 Supreme Court case of ‘’McGee Vs. The Attorney General’’ allowed access to contraception for married couples. The Women’s Liberation Movement, amongst others, was set up to promote tolerance and discussion of controversial social issues. However, these changes caused paranoia amongst traditional Catholics across Ireland, and the roots of the 8th were a reactionary response against a changing world.


The 1983 Referendum 

The Pro-life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), set up in 1981, aimed to enshrine the right to life of the unborn child in the Irish Constitution. It was a coalition of 13 conservative lobbying bodies, 8 of which were explicitly Catholic. The amendment was hastily drafted by the Oireachtas in 1982, and put to a referendum the following year.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and Anti-Amendment Campaign (AAC) opposed the 8th Amendment to the constitution, contesting that the wording did not adequately consider the life of the mother. Additionally, it would not prevent women living in Ireland from needing and seeking abortions, driving the problem ‘’either abroad or underground’’. Time would tell that these insights proved correct. 

The campaign was bitterly divisive. One historical account by Tom Hesketh in 1990 compared it to ’’The Second Partitioning of Ireland’’. Many voters felt alienated by both campaigns. Nonetheless, the amendment was passed on 7 September 1983, with 67% voting in favour of the amendment and 33% voting against. Abortion then became constitutionally outlawed in Ireland. 


Developments in the interim

When the question of abortion re-entered national discourse, it was typically reactionary to tragic stories of the very human cost of  the 8th Amendment.

The ‘‘X Case’’ of 1992 involved a 14-year-old girl who was prevented from leaving Ireland due to her intention to terminate her pregnancy abroad. It caused significant outrage in Irish society and resulted in two constitutional amendments that allowed pregnant individuals to travel outside of the state as well as seek information on abortion services abroad.

Such was the case with Savita Halappanavar, who died in Galway University Hospital in 2012 under preventable circumstances after doctors denied her request to terminate her pregnancy. The case invigorated a new wave of support towards the Abortion Rights Campaign (established in 2012), which lobbied for a referendum to repeal the 8th.


The 2018 Referendum 

A referendum was held on May 25 2018, motioning to repeal the 8th Amendment. Repeal was opposed by leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the PLAC, and the Catholic hierarchy. The ‘‘Anti-Amendment Campaign’’ which included feminist campaigners and trade unions campaigned to overrule and repeal the 8th Amendment. 

Social media played a key role in amplifying the voices of Irish women. The Twitter hashtag #RepealThe8th gained increasing cultural relevance throughout the 2010s, especially on university campuses. The 2018 Facebook initiative ‘‘In Her Shoes’’ provided an anonymous forum for confessional stories to be shared from Irish women who have had abortions. 

The 8th Amendment was repealed, with 67.4% voting in favour, and 33.6% voting against (with Donegal being the only constituency to vote no). This became the 36th amendment to the Irish Constitution, adding a new subsection to Article 40: ‘‘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.’’

This prodigious vote was a landmark moment for human rights and equality in Ireland, especially for women.

Abortion procedure in Ireland today

Abortion in Ireland is regulated by the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. It is permitted during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, and later in cases where the pregnant woman’s life or health is at risk, or in the result of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Anyone can undergo an abortion in Ireland, but individuals have to pay if they do not live on the island. Abortion services may be obtained in some GP surgeries, family planning or women’s health clinics, and certain hospitals, with GP referrals also available. 

Any information given about an individual’s abortion (i.e. to the HSE for free funding, although it is kept anonymous) must be kept confidential. Information about an abortion does not go on medical records. Between the ages of 16 to 17, parents are not made aware, but TUSLA may be informed if there is a risk to safety or welfare.

Every year, the government publishes the number of notifications received for terminations performed under legislation (those in 2014-2018 occurred under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013). About 90 notifications were received between 2014 and 2018, in stark contrast to almost 25,000 in Ireland in 2019-2022, under the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. 


Changes in Ireland’s Social Context

Former Supreme Court Judge, Catherine McGuinness, stated that the 2018 campaign debate was far more civilised than in 1983, and that both sides behaved “properly and respectfully”.

Doctor Mary Henry, one of the few doctors who publicly campaigned against the 8th in 1983, attributes the greater influence of women in Irish life as key to the success of its subsequent repeal. “There weren’t many women doctors back in 1983, especially women doctors with children. The last time the conversation was hugely male, the men were telling us what to do.”

Ireland has changed a lot since 1983, let alone 1953, when Trinity News first started reporting from campus. The language of female autonomy and choice that permeates today’s discussion of reproductive rights was simply not in circulation at the time in Ireland. Not only are sex and relationships different in context today, but they are allowed to be different, upon the decades of campaigning for the civil rights of women in Ireland. 

The Catholic Church has lost much of its impact, and has kept out of the discussion to a greater extent. The influence of the Church has slightly gone into retreat, and alongside it, the misogynistic control of women at the hands of Irish legislation.

Alice Matty

Alice Matty is a Sex and Relationships Deputy Editor and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying Economics and Business.