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The Ireland abortion referendum: Who’s voting yes, who’s voting no, and who’s likely to win.

This Friday, May 25, Ireland will vote on whether to keep abortion illegal. It looks like it could be a very close vote. Here’s everything you need to know.

What’s the current Irish law on abortion?

Abortion is illegal in Ireland unless the woman’s life is at real and substantial risk. That means it’s not even legal in cases of rape, child sexual abuse or incest, or where the foetus has a fatal abnormality. Back in the early 1980s, pro-lifers in Ireland were afraid that their country’s courts might follow the example of Roe vs Wade in the US and lift restrictions on abortion.  So they pushed for an amendment to the constitution which would give the foetus a “right to life” that was equal to that of the mother. The amendment was passed by a referendum in 1983, with a majority of 67 per cent.

What’s the penalty for having an abortion?


Currently, anyone in Ireland found guilty of procuring an abortion faces a prison sentence of 14 years. Even women taking abortion pills risk 14 years in prison.

What’s this week’s referendum about?

A “yes” vote would repeal the amendment to the constitution. That would mean that the government could make abortion legal. The proposed legislation would allow abortion on request up until the 12th week of pregnancy. Abortion would be allowed after the 12th week if the foetus had a fatal abnormality or if the woman’s health was at risk of serious harm.

What happens currently when girls and women in Ireland want an abortion?

Every year, more than 3000 girls and women head to the UK to have an abortion there. Another 1500 take abortion pills, which they’ve illegally bought online, without supervision. Around two to three per cent of those who take pills develop medical problems – for example, if they have an ectopic pregnancy but aren’t aware of it.

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Why is a referendum being held now?

In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, an Indian-born dentist living in Ireland, was miscarrying and asked for an abortion. However, staff at University Hospital Galway refused to give it to her. Her husband says they were told it wasn’t allowed because there was a foetal heartbeat. Halappanavar developed sepsis and died.  Candle-lit vigils were held for her, and the push to legalise abortion grew.

In the same year, Amanda Mellet took her story to the media. Mellet found out when she was 21 weeks pregnant that the foetus had a fatal abnormality. She was forced to go to the UK for a termination, and had to return just 12 hours after the procedure because she couldn’t afford to stay any longer. Mellet and her husband took their case to the United Nations Humans Rights Committee.

Who is in favour of changing abortion laws?

Both the Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar, and the opposition leader, Micheal Martin, are on the “vote yes” side, but some members of their parties feel differently.
Pro-choice student unions at British universities are paying to fly Irish students home to vote yes. Other Irish citizens living overseas are also flying home to try to get the yes vote through.

Who is against the change?

Pro-life groups – some of them receiving support from the US. There’s controversy over Americans using Facebook to try to sway the vote, launching co-ordinated attacks.

What are the polls saying?

When the campaign started, the “yes” vote was well ahead. However, more recent polls are suggesting that it’s on a knife edge.

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