The Constitution of Ireland sets out principles against which all Irish laws must follow. The Constitution can only be changed by a public vote or referendum. As a result of a referendum in 1983, Article 40.3.3, known as the Eighth Amendment, was inserted into our Constitution:
‘The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’
in 1992 another referendum added text to Article 40.3.3 (13th and 14th Amendments). This resulted from what is know as the ‘x’ case (a 14-year old girl, pregnant as a result of rape). The purpose of the 13th and 14th Amendments is to allow information and travel. This means that women from Ireland can leave the country to get abortion care abroad:
‘This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.’
‘This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.’
An additional Amendment that sought to prevent suicide as a reason for accessing abortion was rejected by the Irish electorate.
What Article 40.3.3 means for women in Ireland
In law a woman and her pregnancy are treated as two separate lives, of equal importance, with separate rights. It means that a pregnant woman in Ireland has limited options.
- If a woman decides to end her pregnancy, our Constitution only allows abortion care for those who can afford to travel and have suitable documentation to leave the country and return safely.
- A hospital can only provide abortion care in Ireland if continuing the pregnancy will definitely kill the pregnant woman, otherwise healthcare treatment must be delayed or denied.
- It means that a woman who needs to end her pregnancy has to travel out of Ireland to get the care she needs, or else has to import abortion pills without any help or advice from her doctor.
- The Eighth Amendment means that a woman or a girl who is pregnant as a result of rape or incest cannot end that pregnancy.
- If her developing baby has a serious condition and will die in her womb, a woman cannot bring her pregnancy to an end with the support of her doctor.
In 2013, the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act was passed by the Dáil. This legislation made abortion illegal in Ireland, punishable by a 14 year prison sentence. It allows abortion care in Ireland but only in circumstances where continuing the pregnancy will definitely result in the death of the pregnant woman. Twenty-five abortions were carried out in Irish hospitals last year in these circumstances.