Ireland vote strikes down abortion ban

Results cast as resounding win for women; lawmakers now to work on new law

Posted: May 27, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Supporters of overturning the amendment that required Irish authorities to defend the lives of a woman and a fetus as equals from the moment of conception celebrate Saturday at Dublin Castle.

DUBLIN -- Irish voters overwhelmingly repealed a constitutional ban on abortions and asked the country's Parliament to enact laws that reflect the popular will and make abortions legal in the country for the first time, final results from a historic referendum showed Saturday.

Voters in Friday's referendum supported rescinding the ban, adopted in 1983 as the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, by 66.4 percent to 33.6 percent, the final count showed. The size of the win for abortion rights exceeded expectations and was cast as a historic victory for women's rights.

Before the referendum, the government had pledged to pass legislation by the end of the year to allow unrestricted terminations up to 12 weeks if the amendment was set aside.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, speaking after the official tally was announced at crowded Dublin Castle, hailed the momentous outcome as a "once in a generation vote" that showed the electorate's concern "for the next generation."

"The wrenching pain of decades of mistreatment of Irish women cannot be unlived," Varadkar, who backed repeal, said. "However, today we have ensured that it does not have to be lived again."

This was the day that the Irish people said "no more," Varadkar said.

"No more doctors telling their patients there is nothing that can be done for them in their own country," he said. "No more lonely journeys across the Irish Sea. No more stigma. The veil of secrecy is lifted. No more isolation. The burden of shame is gone."

Opponents of the repeal movement conceded defeat Saturday morning after exit polls from the night before suggested more than two-thirds of voters had backed repeal.

John McGuirk, spokesman for the Save the 8th group, told Irish television Saturday that many Irish citizens would not recognize the country in which they were waking up. The group said on its website that the referendum's outcome was a "tragedy of historic proportions," but McGuirk said the vote must be respected.

"You can still passionately believe that the decision of the people is wrong, as I happen to do, and accept it," he said.

The referendum will remove the Eighth Amendment, which required Irish authorities to defend the lives of a woman and a fetus as equals under the law from the moment of conception. In practical terms, the amendment outlawed all abortions until 2014, when terminations in rare cases when a woman's life was at risk started being allowed.

Campaigners who have fought for more than three decades to overturn the amendment celebrated the referendum vote as a major breakthrough for largely Catholic Ireland.

"This is a monumental day for women in Ireland," Orla O'Connor, co-director of the Together for Yes group, said. "This is about women taking their rightful place in Irish society, finally."

The vote is a "rejection of an Ireland that treated women as second-class citizens," she said, adding: "This is about women's equality and this day brings massive change, monumental change for women in Ireland, and there is no going back."

The outcome signaled the end of an era in which thousands of women each year had been forced either to travel abroad or to buy pills illegally online to terminate pregnancies, risking a 14-year jail sentence. The government has said that general practitioners -- doctors who are the first stop for patients -- will be asked to provide abortions, although they will still be allowed to conscientiously object to terminations at their clinics.

The vote "now means I can do my job without the fear of going to jail," said Grainne McDermott, a doctor who works in intensive care in a Dublin hospital.

The prime minister said the large vote favoring repeal will give his government a greater mandate when drafting abortion legislation that will be submitted for parliamentary approval in a matter of months.

BLOW TO CHURCH

The vote followed months of soul-searching in a country where the legacy of the Catholic Church remains powerful. It was the latest, and harshest, in a string of rejections of the church's authority in recent years.

The church lost much of its credibility in the wake of scandals involving pedophile priests and thousands of unwed mothers who were placed into servitude in Magdalene laundries or mental asylums as recently as the mid-1990s.

The church was, in fact, largely absent from the referendum campaign. Anti-abortion campaigners actively discouraged its participation, preferring to emphasize moral values and human rights rather than religion, possibly to avoid being tarnished by the church-related scandals.

"Yes" campaigners focused heavily on hard cases faced by women, such as rape or fetal abnormalities. The referendum result showed that many Irish voters agreed that women in those circumstances should be allowed a choice.

For many opponents, abortion amounts to murder, while others worry Ireland is losing its identity as a Catholic country.

"To those who voted no, I know today is not welcome," Varadkar said. "You may feel that the country has taken the wrong turn, is no longer a country you recognize. I would like to reassure you that Ireland is still the same country today as it was before, just a little more tolerant, open and respectful."

For many supporters of legalizing abortion, the result was an affirmation of their respect and acceptance by society. Ireland "is taking the proper steps to separate church and state and to move forward as a more progressive country," said Conor Flynn, a 22-year-old student.

Una Mullally, a prominent campaigner for abortion rights, said the issue was more than just a medical procedure, but was about how women have been oppressed. "All of us have underestimated our country," she said before breaking down in tears.

"I dreamed for people to think like this, but didn't believe it."

Still, many who voted in favor of same-sex marriage and laws easing rules around abortion -- such as allowing women to travel abroad to get it -- found the latest measure a step too far. Abortion is still a highly personal issue for many voters, shaped by experiences such as miscarriages or fetal abnormalities.

"We're a Roman Catholic nation. We don't believe in taking a life," said Michael Eustace, 55. "Go over to England and get it done there, not here."

Still, just before slipping his vote into the ballot box, he said, he whispered a prayer for victims of rape and incest, who, had the "yes" vote been rejected, would be barred from having an abortion.

At Dublin's Intercontinental Hotel, supporters of the Together for Yes group spent hours watching the vote tally come in from the country's 40 balloting districts.

Some supporters had tears of joy running down their cheeks, and many women hugged. Cheers broke out every time partial results were shown on two big screens transmitting the latest television news.

When the final count was announced at Dublin Castle, more than 1,000 people gathered outside sang, chanted and toasted one another with champagne.

Ireland's Parliament will debate new abortion laws in the coming months.

Katherine Zappone, the minister for children and youth affairs, said she is confident legislation can be approved and put in place before the end of the year.

"I feel very emotional," she said. "I'm especially grateful to the women of Ireland who came forward to provide their personal testimony about the hard times that they endured, the stress and the trauma that they experienced because of the Eighth Amendment."

The vote in the Republic of Ireland may increase pressure on Northern Ireland to follow suit.

Abortions approved by doctors are allowed in the rest of Britain until the 24th week of pregnancy, but not in Northern Ireland, where the procedure is limited to cases when a woman's life is at risk.

U.K. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable and other politicians said Saturday that it is time for Northern Ireland to change as well.

"The position in Northern Ireland is now highly anomalous and I think, probably, action will now have to be taken," Cable said.

Information for this article was contributed by Gregory Katz, Renata Brito and Leo Enright of The Associated Press; and by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura of The New York Times.

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, foreground, arrives at Dublin Castle for the results of the referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Irish Consti...

A Section on 05/27/2018