Abortion in Ireland: committee votes for constitutional change

Nadia Khomami and agency
Campaigners against the eighth amendment rally outside government buildings in Dublin last year. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

A committee set up to deliberate on Ireland’s strict abortion regime has voted for the constitutional rules to be changed.

The Citizens’ Assembly, a randomly selected group of 99 members of the public chaired by the supreme court judge Mary Laffoy, met on Saturday to discuss the contentious issue for the final time.

At the heart of the assembly’s work is examining the eighth amendment to the republic’s constitution, which gives equal right to life to the mother and the foetus. In the first of a series of votes by members on whether to advise constitutional reform, the assembly voted 87% in favour of change.

A series of other votes are being held over the weekend to determine the specific changes the assembly will recommend.

Since 2014 in Ireland, a pregnancy can be terminated under the Protection Of Life During Pregnancy Act if there is a risk to the woman’s life, including from suicide. The procedure can involve a medical or surgical termination, or an early delivery by induction or caesarean section.

There has been a strong campaign for women to be allowed to have an abortion in cases of rape and incest, or if there has been a fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis.

Figures from the Health Service Executive showed 26 terminations were carried out under the legislation in 2014 and again in 2015. In both years, 14 were because of a risk to the life of the mother from physical illness, three in relation to suicide and nine following emergencies arising from physical illness.

In 2013, Amanda Mellet became the first of three Irish women to formally ask the UN to denounce the prohibition on abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities as “cruel and inhumane”.

Mellet and her husband took their case to the UN’s human rights committee after they were forced to go to England to terminate the pregnancy.

Last year the UNHRC ruled that by forcing Mellet to leave Ireland to have an abortion, the state had inflicted trauma and distress on her.

For the first time in its history, Ireland compensated Mellet as a result of the ruling. Under the country’s laws, if Mellet and the other two women had remained in the republic they would have been forced to give birth to stillborn babies.

On Saturday, Judge Laffoy said the result of the vote provided a mandate for changing the status quo and, if implemented by the government, it would require a constitutional referendum, the Irish Times reported.

Opening the session, she praised the commitment of the assembly members.

“This exercise in deliberative democracy allowed us to withdraw from the polarising perspectives and begin first and foremost with the facts.”

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