Britain’s role in Ireland’s upcoming abortion referendum cannot be underestimated

Theresa May and Leo Varadkar
Peadar O'Cearnaigh

Irish women choosing an abortion are essentially subject to British abortion law. Because abortion is effectively illegal in Ireland, so the UK is the most feasible place for Irish women to have one. But all this could change on 25 May, as the Irish hold a referendum that could legalise abortion.

Abortion in Ireland

Following a referendum in 1983, the Eighth Amendment was inserted into the Irish Constitution. This effectively made it illegal for women to have an abortion there.

Prior to the 1983 referendum, there was nothing specifically dealing with abortion in the Irish Constitution. So the Irish state relied upon sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.


As the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act was not extended to Northern Ireland, abortion north of the border isn’t an option either. This contributed to 168,703 Irish women from the south of Ireland travelling to the UK to have an abortion between 1980 and 2016. It also created a situation whereby Irish women went to dangerous lengths in order to have an abortion.

Abortion referendum and legal outcomes

On 25 May, Irish people are being asked whether they wish to keep or repeal the Eighth Amendment. A majority ‘Yes’ vote means abortion could become legal in Ireland. A ‘No’ vote would maintain the status quo.

In the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, the Irish government has promised legislation. This will allow unrestricted abortions up to 12 weeks of the pregnancy. After that period, abortion will be still possible if there is a risk to the life or health of the mother, or a fatal foetal abnormality.

Hard Brexit

While the ‘Yes’ side looks set to win the abortion referendum, its lead over the ‘No’ side has been narrowing. Should that trend continue, the consequences could be disastrous for Irish women in a hard Brexit scenario.

While a compromise travel agreement may be reached between Ireland and the UK, it’s still unclear what will happen. A hard Brexit could [paywall] lead to Irish women having limited feasible choice for abortion. Travel restrictions would add further to the difficulty of Irish women choosing an abortion.

What next for Irish women

If Irish voters at home and abroad get as involved as they did during the marriage equality referendum in 2015, this could confirm a majority ‘Yes’ vote on 25 May.

A ‘No’ vote maintains the status quo, and keeps Irish women at the mercy of British law. A hard Brexit would then be unthinkable for Irish women.

Get Involved!

Join The Canary, so we can keep holding the powerful to account.

– Contact the abortion rights campaign in Ireland.

– Can I vote? Check the register here.

Featured image via EU 2017EE – Flickr / EU 2017EE – Flickr

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