Irish to Vote on Abortion Ban, and Expect a Contentious Debate

Passed when the Republic of Ireland was widely seen as the world’s most conservative Roman Catholic country, the Eighth Amendment has been challenged repeatedly in the decades since, both by abortion-rights groups and by an increasingly liberal citizenry angered by scandals arising from the ban.

After the “X Case” of 1992, in which a 14-year-old rape victim was prevented from traveling to Britain for an abortion, voters passed a constitutional amendment that left the ban intact but recognized a woman’s right to travel abroad. Another amendment, also passed in 1992, permitted Irish women to obtain information on abortion services overseas, which had been prohibited by the state.

Much of the impetus for the new constitutional effort stems from the case of Savita Halappanavar, 31, an Indian-born dentist who died of sepsis after miscarrying in a Galway hospital in 2012. Having learned that her 17-week-old fetus would not live, Ms. Halappanavr repeatedly asked the staff to terminate the pregnancy to relieve her own worsening condition. She was told that her pregnancy could not be terminated while the fetus had a heartbeat.

An inquiry determined that recent interpretations of the Eighth Amendment had found therapeutic terminations to be permissible, but the medical staff’s uncertainty over the law and the lack of clear legislation contributed to a delay in her treatment.

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Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister. His own position on the constitutional effort is somewhat ambiguous. Credit Daniel Leal-Olivas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The case helped build momentum for a citizens’ constitutional assembly, which this year recommended that the Eighth Amendment be repealed or amended, and that legislation be introduced to allow abortion, effectively on request.

A number of social and economic factors have made contemporary Ireland a more liberal country that the one that passed the Eighth Amendment. Not least among these is an erosion in the status of the Roman Catholic Church, weakened by scandals over the sexual abuse of children and the treatment of marginalized women in bleak church-run laundries, where many died and were buried anonymously.

The 1983 campaign to ban abortion, backed by bishops and Catholic lay groups, represented the high-water mark for institutional Catholic power in Ireland, coming just four years after Pope John Paul II drew huge crowds in the first papal visit to the country. While a significant majority describe themselves as Catholic, few now adhere to the church’s teachings in matters like divorce, contraception, sex outside marriage or gay rights.

An Irish Times poll in May showed that large majorities supported legal changes allowing abortion in cases of rape or serious risk to the physical or mental health of the mother, but less than a quarter of people supported changes making it legal under all circumstances.

Leaders of the Repeal the Eight campaign are likely to be buoyed by another liberal constitutional effort, the 2015 referendum that legalized same-sex marriage, though the country’s well-organized anti-abortion activists will find much in the polls to encourage their own hopes.

Traditionally cautious, Ireland’s mainstream politicians may huddle as close as they can to the middle ground. Mr. Varadkar’s own position is somewhat ambiguous. Though he came out as gay during the same-sex marriage campaign, Mr. Varadkar had sounded conservative notes earlier in his political career, opposing abortion and same-sex adoption.

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