The 2018 Abortion Referendum in Ireland – Repealers v. Retainers

NB: “Ireland” in this article will refer to the Republic of Ireland (RoI, or Eire, as per its Constitution); may GPers in Northern Ireland forgive me for this shortcut.

Ireland, the country that does not take No for an answer (EU treaties of Nice and Lisbon), is having another referendum on 25 May. This time it is on its own Constitution and its clause on abortion. That clause made abortion in Ireland unconstitutional, from 1983 onwards, and led to Ireland’s “silent export” of Irish women coming to England for abortions.

A recent brouhaha in Ireland over the role of Facebook and Google caught my eye. I decided to investigate and by this article share the results with GPers, particularly as the ghosts of Brexit and Trump are affecting campaigns!

This is the 6th question put to the Irish people in a referendum on abortion and related issues. *

This referendum is NOT a straight Yes or No to abortion. Irish people will be voting on whether changes should be made to the Constitution that could allow the Oireachtas (the two houses of the Irish parliament) pass legislation broadening the access to abortion in Ireland. It could well be the last stand of church versus state in Ireland.

The state of the law

Abortion was illegal under the old British law of 1861 and made unconstitutional in 1983.

Irish people will vote in a national referendum on Friday 25 May 2018 about the following question:

“Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the undermentioned Bill? / Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill 2018.”

This is what the ballot paper will look like:

Sunshine&Showers, Going Postal
Sample ballot paper, Referendum Commission

Note that only Irish citizens (living in Ireland) can vote in a referendum. None of that reciprocal stuff that would allow British citizens resident in Ireland to vote, in the way that Irish citizens were able to vote in the UK referendum.

The 36th Amendment, if passed, would repeal (i.e. remove) the 8th Amendment from the Constitution.

The 8th Amendment, also known as Article 40.3.3., was inserted in the Constitution after a referendum on 7 October 1983. It states:

“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.”

By guaranteeing the equal right to life of the unborn, it prohibits abortion in almost all cases. A hard case in 1992, that of a teenage rape victim, the X Case, caused the Supreme Court to interpret that the risk of suicide constituted a “real and substantial risk” to the girl’s life, and an abortion was legal in that case.

Sunshine&Showers, Going Postal
postcard from 2013, pro-choice, to send to TDs

The 36th Amendment would replace the 8th with this line:

“Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancies.”

Note that this does not appear on the ballot paper. This new clause would be a blanket permission allowing politicians to legislate for abortion, outside of any constitutional constraints. This is a very important way of putting this, as the electorate have no guarantee that the legislators will legislate, or more crucially WOULD AGREE on any legislation. By agreeing to repeal Article 40.3.3, the people cede control to their TDs (MPs) on the most divisive issue in Irish society. Curious, when they don’t trust politicians at the best of times, and even less so when leading them currently is a fragile minority government which could collapse at any time and leave the issue in limbo for a long time.

A draft of the proposed abortion law (called General Scheme of a Bill to Regulate Termination of Pregnancy) has been published. The General Scheme sets out the framework for the proposed legislation. There is a long way, and a lot of amendments, to go before it becomes a Draft Bill. And after that, it will have to be approved by vote through the Dáil and the Seanad before it becomes an Act. Bear in mind that only the Labour Party, the Greens and Sinn Fein have a unified position on the issue (despite a SF TD being suspended for three months because of her No to Repeal stance). No doubt about it, this bill will be difficult to pass through parliament and is already dividing the cabinet.

The Two Sides of the Divide

In any referendum, as we know, how the question is phrased is of a crucial importance, as is the two-choice answer asked for. The question can only be binary: Yes or No.

In the UK it was expected that the EU referendum question would be phrased in such a way, hence the early UKIP campaign “Say NO”. But No is a powerful response in a referendum, more often than not indicating a vote for the status quo. In the end the question was Remain or Leave – Remain being the preferred/expected answer, – precisely to favour the status quo.

Interestingly, in Ireland in 2018, the answer that the PTB / government / establishment want is YES. They are drawing on the successful campaign for gay marriage (“equal marriage” as they positively call it) that led to a resounding Yes on 22 May 2015 (62% of Yes votes on a turnout of 61%). Yes is perceived as being enthusiastic and forward-looking. So:

Yes is: Yes, repeal, remove the 8th amendment from the Constitution

No is: No, I want Article 40.3.3 to be retained in the Constitution

No obviously sounds more negative but it is in fact a Yes to the status quo, which gives it a built-in advantage, as referenda on socio-moral issues generally favour the status quo (the gay marriage one is an exception).

More elements of language: Note the headline slogan of the Together for Yes Campaign: “Campaigning for a more compassionate Ireland that allows abortion care for women who need it.” Abortion sounded too horrible, too medical, too negative, let’s adjoin the word “care” to it! Termination of Pregnancy (ToP) sounds even more clinical, legalistic and a tad terrifying! Let’s not frighten people with too much talk of “pro-choice”, that sounds selfish. That’s how to compete against the cuddly “pro-life” expression used by the other side! But – can there be a compassionate Yes to abortion? And can they really sell abortion as health care?

I have not seen all Yes posters but I have read that not one of them mentions the word abortion. It is all about “compassion in a crisis”. The Yes side has powerful arguments in the current luvvie feely climate: compassion, choice, trust (women), human right.

Sunshine&Showers, Going Postal
Retain v. Repeal posters

The No posters on the other hand are about the undeniable humanity of the “baby” in utero. The Save the 8th Campaign uses slogans like “Repeal kills”, “Abortion stops a beating heart”, “Love doesn’t count chromosomes”, “Love them both” etc. The choice of the word “Save” in the name of the campaign stresses that it not just about keeping an article in the Constitution, but is about saving babies.

Sunshine&Showers, Going Postal
Retain logo


Sunshine&Showers, Going Postal
Repeal logo

To a keen watcher, the bias in favour of Yes is obvious, as when they downplayed a huge pro-life rally in March which organisers say attracted 100,000 participants but the MSM report it as “tens of thousands”; pro-life columnists being few and far between. Generally speaking, “news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favour abortion-right advocates.” (Breda O’Brien, 4 July 2016)

Abortion in Ireland

Ireland does have an abortion rate. It is the number of abortions performed in Britain on females with Irish addresses + the number of abortions performed in Ireland.

Irish women were guaranteed the right to obtain information about abortion and the right to travel to another jurisdiction for an abortion in a referendum in 1992. 62.4% of Irish voters backed a constitutional amendment which allowed women and girls to “travel between the State and another state.” At the same time 59.9% of voters backed another amendment on the right to “information relating to services lawfully available in another state.”

These two rights are now enshrined in the Irish Constitution.

The official figure for 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available, was that 3,265 females travelled from Ireland to the England for abortions. This was the lowest figure since 1980. From a peak of 6,673 reached in 2001, the rate of women travelling to England for an abortion declined relatively rapidly between 2001 and 2007 and more gradually since then (I don’t think there are numbers available for those few flying to Holland).

By contrast, increasing numbers of Irish women are making contact with online abortion pill providers. One provider reported that in 2010, 548 sought such pills. By 2016, it had tripled to 1,748. Even though it does not mean these women actually took the abortion pill, it is an interesting indicator. Still, the fall in the number of abortions has been happening for 15 years, a period of time much longer than abortion pills have been readily available online.

A small number of women have abortions in Ireland each year. This happens only if the continuation of the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman. Twenty-five abortions were performed in Irish hospitals in 2017.

What happens next

If No wins, Article 40.3.3 will remain in place unchanged. And any laws providing for the termination of pregnancies can only do so where there is “a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother including the risk of suicide.” The constitutional provisions on freedom to travel and information will remain as they are now. Note that Minister Regina Doherty, a convert to the Yes position, has already said that in case of a No vote the pro-choice movement “are certainly not going to accept a No” and “would strongly push for” a second poll. Déjà-vu?

If Yes wins, there is no vacuum as there is already a recent Act in place that governs abortion, the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. It defines the circumstances within which abortion can be legally performed in Ireland, i.e. if there is a risk of loss of life (including by suicide) to a pregnant woman. It will remain in place until new legislation is enacted, then it will be repealed.

If the 8th Amendment is repealed and replaced, the legislation that will be brought in as a result will allow for abortion to be carried out on a pregnancy up to 12 weeks. This provision (Head 7 of the General Scheme) is to deal with rape and incest, but of course amounts to abortion on request, since no check or even justification will be sought.

In contrast with British law, one doctor only will be consulted, and no reason asked.

The law will allow further access to abortion when there is a risk to the life or health of the woman, or if the baby won’t survive (Head 4). No time limit is mentioned. 200 lawyers and judges signed a collective letter saying that the Government was trying to focus attention on the hard cases, but in effect “the proposed legislation would allow the life of the unborn to be ended for any reason up until 12 weeks, and far beyond that on grounds which have led to abortion on demand in other jurisdictions. In addition, such limitations on abortion as may be set in the legislation could be removed at any time without the consent of the people.”

Their statement on 11 May was not given prominence in the MSM, neither were five of the most senior obstetricians the day before, who stated ‘that not one of our colleagues should ever be permitted for using the 8th Amendment as an excuse for not treating a woman’, in response to a Together for Yes video, in which a Dr Rhona Mahony stated that the said amendment means Ireland is “playing medical roulette with women’s lives”. The MSM lying by omission, we know it well.

The Catholic Church has undoubtedly lost a lot of its grip on Irish souls and on the Irish State. Several scandals and creeping secularisation saw to that. Divorce was legalised in 1995; homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993; gay marriage was legalised in 2015. And the Gender Recognition Act of 2015 allows gender changes by self-determination. Small detail, this year, alcohol was sold on Good Friday for the first time in more than 90 years! But, but, people can be against abortion for reasons other than on religious grounds and that maybe what makes the result of this referendum not quite certain. People can be ok, even without enthusiasm, with gay people gaining the right to marry, but most would say that legalising abortion involves a human life, whatever you call it (embryo, foetus or unborn child). The Catholic Church has been rather muted in the 2018 campaign, but that does not prevent a lot of people in Ireland thinking it is one step too far to go from the right to life to the right to abortion, constitutionally protected, in one fell swoop.

A number of people, a number which has grown in recent years, would not mind too much if abortion was legalised in cases of rape, abnormality to the foetus, the so-called “hard cases”, but actually might find themselves unable to vote Yes as they are in effect giving carte blanche to law-makers to introduce abortion on demand.

The politicians have bundled humane concerns for pregnancies in medical difficulties with wilful intent to end life for no reason up to 12 weeks, and that is not fooling people. It is not just churchmen who find that unrestricted access to abortion at whatever stage is not an ethical position they can accept. The proposed legislation would give Ireland a more liberal abortion law than the UK.

Sile Quinlan, campaigning for a No vote in Sligo, told the Guardian:

“When you explain to people that Repeal will be followed by abortion on demand, they are very surprised and shocked. There’s definitely a feeling that it’s a step too far.” Quinlan tells voters that one in 19 pregnancies in Ireland ends in abortion, whereas in the UK the figure is one in five. “We look at Britain and we can see what the potential future is. When you ask people how they’d feel if Ireland was to move in that direction, there’s a very clear message that people don’t want to follow the UK,” she said.

There were several powerful phrases colouring the debate in the 1980s: “the thin end of the wedge”, “the slippery slope”, and the legal adage, “hard cases make bad law”. What has happened in Britain since the 1967 abortion law proves the point.

One reader wrote to the Irish Times on 10 May to make the point that espousing “equality” can only take you so far:

“I am a mature man who was happy to support the liberal agenda in seeking to legalise gay marriage on the basis that it supported the principle of equality.

The liberal agenda is now seeking to introduce abortion into Ireland which definitely does not support the principle of equality especially as it pertains to unborn children. Will the liberal agenda please make up its mind – does it support equality or not?”

Sunshine&Showers, Going Postal
Repeal placard v Retain poster

The Pressure for Yes

The UN and various NGO’s have pushed for years for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. The EU has been called upon several times to make the law budge. In 1992 the ECJ notably declared abortion a “service”. Several cases were taken to European courts by women and pro-choice groups to force the government to change Irish law. Conservative voters had to be reassured before the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty (a Protocol had to be added) and the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (guarantees were given) that these EU treaties would not affect the Irish position on abortion.

In referenda past, the Irish government maintained a neutral stance. They would send a leaflet to each household setting out the pros and cons of each side of the debate. I am not sure when or why this changed but this time, as in the case of gay marriage, they are openly calling for a Yes vote. The MSM are stridently calling for Yes. Only TV and radio debates have to provide balanced panels.

Pro-Choice activists campaigned alongside the LGBT groups to get gay marriage legalised. It was on the understanding that the same LGBT would help in the forthcoming abortion referendum. Together they form a powerful front.

Yes was in the lead from the start of the referendum campaign, but the divide was getting narrower. On 2 May, an online article was saying:

“Transatlantic links between anti-choice groups remain strong and US activists are framing Ireland’s referendum as a major symbolic fight. Social media is emerging as a key battleground, with foreign and Irish anti-abortion and ‘alt-right’ activists targeting voters with Facebook ads.

Irish anti-choice groups have also enlisted some of the same American and British companies and individuals that used controversial data-mining and targeting techniques to campaign for Donald Trump and Brexit – including senior Vote Leave figures and a company that built Trump’s America First app and previously worked for the US National Rifle Association.”

Sunshine&Showers, Going Postal
Screenshot of a tweet at

Fintan O’Toole was calling for some regulation on 27 March:

“The Brexit referendum and the Trump campaign have shown in the starkest terms that we are no longer in the era of national democracy. The online space in which the opinions of increasing numbers of voters are formed is unbounded. Russia can target voters in Ohio. So can a UK-based digital-campaigning firm like Cambridge Analytica. An obscure data firm in Canada, AggregateIQ, can target voters in Sunderland. […] So why do you need to bring in the person who ran the Brexit operation, one of the most successful campaigns of digital persuasion yet seen? How do you just happen to hire someone who is right at the heart of the Trump-Mercer-Brexit data-manipulation nexus? If the anti-abortion campaign can really afford this kind of overkill, we can also expect every Save the 8th leaflet to be delivered to our doors on a silver platter by a liveried courier riding a white charger. […] The firestorm of fake news is coming. We need to know what plans the Government has to ensure a free and fair vote.”

By 7 May, Irish Times columnists were getting more hysterical, like Una Mullally for example:

“The poisonous online campaign to defeat the abortion referendum: Protect the 8th and Undecided8 are ruthlessly targeting undecided voters”

An Irish Times editorial was lamenting that “concern has been expressed across the political spectrum about the potential impact of unregulated online advertising and of misleading information being disseminated via social media platforms.” And added that people monitoring online activity “last week reported an increase in the volume of ads funded by anonymous groups outside the country, particularly from anti-abortion groups in the US.”

On cue, on 8 May, Facebook announced that it was banning all ads relative to the referendum coming from foreign sources “as part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence.”

The day after, Google went one further and banned all ads relative to the referendum on its platforms (google, gmail, youtube), to protect “election integrity”.

Funny, nobody batted an eyelid when it came out that Soros was financing Amnesty International (Amnesty and the IFPA, the Irish Family Planning Association, both on the Yes side, have received over € 400,000 in foreign donations). So yes, there is American money sloshing around in Ireland to support either side of the divide. And there is no doubt that the No side has been relying on digital and social media because the print and broadcast media are committed to a pro-choice / Yes agenda. It was well-known that No had a big edge over Yes in online ads. The Yes side were complaining about it (and reporting ads to the relevant companies if not lobbying them for action). Indeed, “there has been a rising sense of pessimism in some Repeal quarters that the campaign was slipping away from them.”

It was also well-known that No intended to reach undecided voters in the final days of the campaign:

“Their plans included a substantial intensification of online advertising and campaigning in the final weeks of the campaign, culminating in a bid to target undecided voters in the final three days of the campaign. However, that strategy is now undermined by the Google and Facebook decisions. It is understood that the Save the Eighth campaign had booked €40,000 of ads with Google in recent days, which will now be cancelled.” (IT, 10 May)

The Irish Times, openly pro-Yes do I need to say, even admitted on 10 May:

“Several sources familiar with the internet companies said they believed that Google and Facebook had become alarmed in recent days at the prospect of the referendum being defeated and that they would be blamed by Yes campaigners and some elements of the media for their failure to adequately control or regulate advertising from the No side.”

Facebook banning only foreign ads targeting Irish voters could be seen to purify the national debate, but added to Google’s decision, it becomes blatant that the practical impact of these bans benefits one side in the referendum at the expense of the other. One IT columnist got it: “It is the very definition of foreign interference in our system.”

Immediately after Google’s decision, the Save The 8th website had a special announcement on its homepage, preceding a press conference: “RIGGED / They’re worried we might win, so they’re trying to silence us”. The Save The 8th spokesman compared Google’s decision to An Post (the Irish provider of postal services) saying it would stop posting leaflets from campaigners. Would that be acceptable? There is no doubt that, like during the gay marriage campaign, an equal voice has not been given to those who want to retain the 8th Amendment. There is no such thing as a fair and balanced debate as there can be no level playing field with the entire political and media establishment campaigning for the pro-abortion side.

I wonder if one can expect legal action if Yes wins.

Facebook and Google have been accused of being manipulated in order to undermine democracy; the major traumas of Brexit and Trump have thrown too much spotlight on them. But I think that the two American companies not only feared that they would be accused of altering the outcome of the vote if No won, but that they did not want to be associated with the No side of the argument. A private company foregoing advertising revenue does so for ideological reasons! Didn’t have such qualms in the run-up to the legalisation of gay marriage though.

Sunshine&Showers, Going Postal
Screenshot of a tweet at re Google and gay marriage

Seeing the jubilation of the Yes side to the news about Facebook and Google ad bans made me wonder why they are so happy with massive corporate censorship. An IT columnist asked: “… the idea that they can turn on and off content as they wish has major implications for society. Who made them the ultimate gatekeepers of political debate?” This question will outlast the present national poll.

The Great Replacement

Consideration of demographics never entered the abortion debate before. It has this time, all be it on the margin. There is a group on the internet, The 8th and my Irish Identity, a political party, Identity Ireland, and a number of twitterers. The fact that Ireland is on the brink of jettisoning one of its distinctive values, the constitutional protection of the unborn, at a time of mass immigration, cultural dilution and creeping islamisation is somewhat paradoxical. The fact that the government is promoting “the killing of Irish babies” at the same time as Project Ireland 2040, “our big vision for how we want to reshape Ireland over the next two decades” – to grow population by one million with mass migration, is disquieting to those who are aware of the Project. One of Ireland’s leading imams called for Yes, need I say more? The vast majority of the people, even if sensing that something is going awry on the Emerald Isle, are not putting two and two together.


Sunshine&Showers, Going Postal
Screenshot of a tweet at

In the battle of the columnists, two opinion formers since the 1990’s have come out with their irreconcilable positions. I quote them here because they’re both very influential and the latter cannot help lumping together this poll and Brexit, which GPers will relish!

John Waters, with two hard-hitting statements made in a radio interview: “What is being put in front of us – by stealth – is a proposal to turn the right to life into the right to kill.” and “This pencil will remain a pencil if you put an ‘X’ on the No. But if you put an ‘X’ on the Yes, then the pencil becomes a knife…”

Fintan O’Toole: “The Irish abortion regime has thus been dependent on something we have taken for granted: the Common Travel Area (CAT) between the two islands. The continued existence of the CAT is very likely after Brexit – but not certain. The political paralysis in London again raises the spectre of Britain being unable to agree any deal at all with Brussels and instead stumbling over the cliff with no parachute. […] Ireland’s abortion regime has depended on the indulgence of our former overlords. […] At the moment, when they [Irish women] face those dilemmas, we make them foreigners. They stop being Irish citizens and become subjects of Her Britannic Majesty. An independent country can’t go on doing this forever. The habits of dependency have to be broken some time. As it happens, that time is now. The English comfort blanket is being torn off by Brexit. The evasions and ambiguities that allowed Ireland a very dependent kind of independence are no longer going to be available. England is choosing its own erratic path towards an unknowable destination. Ireland is not going to follow.”

Conclusion (not prediction)

To be clear, vote No = keep Article 40.3.3. and the 2013 law on abortion. Vote Yes = trust the legislators to agree on how far to legalise abortion in Ireland.

Yes means trusting politicians to do something moral, and to agree on it, and women to make their own choices. No means women continue to travel to the UK for an abortion.

This might not be the most powerful argument but as a scandal unfolds as I write about botched smear tests with 209 women affected, 17 already dead and several others dying, the fact that the tests were outsourced to US labs raises the question: will the Irish health service be able to cope with abortion on demand when it could not cope with mere tests? And that is before considering the fact that many doctors and nurses will refuse to be involved.

Could the government have been smarter and proposed an amendment spelling out other hard cases than suicides? With the proposed Bill, it seems to me that this is a Catch-22 referendum that invites a No or abstention. However, seeing the way the Irish have been brainwashed on gay and EU issues, I don’t hold my breath. Opinion polls continue to show a strong lead for the Yes side, though that lead has diminished since the start of the campaign. There is a clear generational divide: for the young, the 8th is just archaic. They are more vocal and militant than older voters in rural areas who don’t like to say how they intend to vote. In the gay marriage referendum the No vote ended up higher than opinion polls had suggested.

The worst case scenario would be a Yes victory on poor turnout and with a narrow margin of victory. Divorce was legalised with 50.28% of the vote.

Whatever the result, the abortion issue will not go away. If No wins, pro-Repeal campaigners will keep coming back until they get the result they want. If it is Yes, a new fight will begin over the government’s proposed changes to the law.

Some further reading:

For a cartoon by Martyn Turner, Irish Times resident cartoonist:


* referenda on the 8th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 25th and 36th Amendments to the Irish Constitution.

© Sunshine&Showers 2018

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