Ireland Votes To Legalize Abortion, In A Shocking Defeat To The Country’s Catholic Leadership

The Prime Minister promises a law will be in place by the end of the year.

Peter MorrisonAP Images

Ireland voted to legalize abortion on Saturday, a stunning defeat to the country’s Catholic leadership in what The Guardian describes as a “landslide.”

With an estimated 64 percent of eligible voters turning out to vote on Saturday, the results showed that an overwhelming number of the Irish people supported legalizing abortion. 1,429,981 voted in favor of abolishing the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution, while 723,632 voted against it. In terms of percentages, that works out to 66.4 percent yes to 33.6 percent no.

That result was in line with what pollsters had been predicting based on exit polls, which showed support for legalization at between 68 and 69 percent.

Ireland’s Complex Relationship With Abortion

Just a few decades ago, legalizing abortion would have been all but unthinkable in Ireland.

The illegality of abortion in the heavily-Catholic country wasn’t just a matter of law: it was enshrined in Ireland’s constitution. The eighth amendment, ratified in 1983, granted “personhood” to fetuses, essentially guarding against the legislature or courts allowing abortion. For a time, so strict were Ireland’s anti-abortion laws that even leaving the country to have an abortion elsewhere was illegal, as Irish News reported in 2010.

Reactions From Both Sides

In a statement via Irish magazine Joe, Ailbhe Smyth, Co-Director of Together for YES, called Saturday’s vote “historic.”

“This is a vote for dignity and decency… This will be a moment of profound change in Ireland’s social history, a moment when the nation collectively stood up for women and for their healthcare, and voted for constitutional change.”

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Meanwhile, Save the Eighth activist John McGuirk said in a Facebook post that he was “broken hearted.”

“Today will be a hard and difficult day, but hold your heads high. It is never wrong to speak up for what you believe in. It is wrong to stay silent, and especially wrong to stay silent when the crowd is totally against you.”

What This Means For Ireland Moving Forward

Saturday’s referendum doesn’t mean that abortion will be legal in Ireland immediately. It will take some time for the legislature to write up laws that will allow abortion at up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.

What’s more, because Ireland provides socialized health care, it will take some time to introduce abortion, paid for at government expense, into Ireland’s National Health Service.

Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who supported the referendum, promised laws on the books by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the timing of the referendum couldn’t have been much worse for the Catholic Church, which still looms large culturally and socially over the island nation. The vote to legalize abortion comes just months before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Ireland, the first papal visit to the country since Pope John Paul II visited in 1979.