Student Leadership Helped to Legalize Abortion in Ireland

By Abi Rahman-Davies

On May 25, in a huge win for women, people across Ireland voted overwhelmingly to support the repeal of the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution. The referendum passed with 66.4% voting ‘yes’ in a rebuke of the draconian abortion laws that have governed the country for decades. This vote follows the 2015 passage of the Marriage Equality act, marking a trend of successful liberalization efforts largely indebted to the dedication of youth and student leadership throughout the country.

The eighth amendment, originally passed in 1983, established the equal right to life of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses, outlawing abortion in nearly all cases. Until 1992, it also remained illegal to travel abroad to seek an abortion, though many women still did so. That year, in the controversial ‘Case X’, the Irish Supreme Court ruled in favor of a 14 year old who had been prevented from travelling to Britain to seek an abortion. The teen had become pregnant as a result of rape, and argued that she was suicidal and needed an abortion to protect her life. Due to this risk to her life, the court ruled in favor of her right to travel abroad to get an abortion, paving the way for others to do so safely as well.

Despite this win, abortion remained severely restricted within Ireland, preventing those without the ability to travel abroad from seeking safe treatment. In the decades since the passage of the eighth amendment, thousands of Irish women have been forced either to seek unsafe abortions, or to spend their time and money travelling abroad in order to access treatment. According to the UK Department of health, 168,705 Irish women sought abortions in England and Wales between 1980 and 2016. The total number of Irish women traveling to foreign countries to seek abortions is likely higher, representing a huge number of women forced to confront anti-choice protesters in a mentally and financially taxing ordeal. For many women, especially students, low-income individuals and those working full-time, having to travel abroad to access abortions represented a huge and unnecessary hardship. Now, with the overwhelming vote to support safe abortion access in Ireland, such trips will no longer be necessary.

This victory for women is owed in large part to the efforts of young people around the country to mobilize votes. The Union of Students in Ireland, which represents 374,000 students across the country, played a central role in this effort. In 2015, a large student turnout rate helped to pass the Marriage Equality act, a result partially indebted to USI’s and other student efforts to mobilize the youth vote. These efforts underscored the power of youth to effect liberal change. This year, USI mobilized again to support the national ‘Together for Yes’ campaign to repeal the eighth amendment.

“We directly registered 26,979 new student voters in the lead up to this referendum and we know from our two week roadshow on campuses that students see this as a real issue for them whatever way they vote,” USI president Michael Kerrigan said in a news release.“We’ve expected youth turnout to be higher than the Marriage Equality vote in 2015, and we’re glad to see this hold true.” The efforts of USI, among other groups, helped produce the third highest turnout for a referendum in Ireland since the adoption of the country’s constitution in 1937, with 64.1% participation.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also celebrated the victory, saying “no more to doctors telling their patients there’s nothing that can be done for them in their own country, no more lonely journeys across the Irish Sea, no more stigma as the veil of secrecy is lifted and no more isolation as the burden of shame is gone.” The government has promised to work swiftly to pass new laws guaranteeing legal abortions up to 12 weeks, with additional exceptions for risks to maternal health and fetal abnormalities.

These new measures will bring Ireland up to speed with the rest of the European community on reproductive health, ringing in a new era of women’s equality in the country. This vote follows the landmark 2015 vote to legalize same sex marriage, marking a welcome trend of support for human rights in Ireland. These measures prove the value of youth mobilization and underscore the importance of making young voices heard in the fight for the advancement of human rights worldwide.

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