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Referendum announced for 2018 on ending Ireland’s strict abortion laws

Ireland’s newly elected Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has announced that a referendum will be held in 2018 on the issue of repealing the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which strictly prohibits abortion in nearly all circumstances. Varadkar announced the planned referendum alongside his selection of new cabinet ministers, including ‘pro-choice’ Minister for Health Simon Harris, who will be preparing legislation to enable this referendum to be held. Humanists UK and its section Northern Ireland Humanists have welcomed the announcement, which represents a significant step towards the full realisation of women’s sexual and reproductive rights in the Republic of Ireland and will strengthen the case for equal access to abortion in Northern Ireland.

The announcement follows an increase in pressure upon the Irish Government for the law to be changed. Earlier this month, the UN Humans Rights Committee ruled that Ireland’s prohibition on abortion, which forces women to travel abroad for the procedure, violates international human rights treaties. This was the second ruling against the Irish Government by the UN Human Rights Committee on this issue since 2015.

These calls have also been echoed by civil society in Ireland. In April this year, a Citizen’s Assembly composed of 99 members of the public voted to recommend to the Oireachtas (Ireland’s legislative body) reform of the eighth amendment. This recommendation was followed by widespread criticism after a teenage girl at risk of suicide was denied access to an abortion and sectioned under the Mental Health Act at the beginning of June this year.  

Abortion laws in the Republic of Ireland are among the most restrictive in Europe. The eighth amendment attributes legal rights to the pregnant woman and the foetus equally. This means that abortion is strictly prohibited in all cases except when the pregnancy represents a real and substantial risk to the mother’s life. Abortion is not permitted in instances where the pregnancy has resulted from sexual crimes such as rape or incest, or in cases where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

It has been estimated as a result of this law that since 1980 over 160,000 Irish women have had no option but to travel to England and other destinations abroad to access abortion, placing these women under undue financial and emotional burdens.

This situation is mirrored in Northern Ireland, where despite being UK citizens, women are not able to access safe and legal abortion like their compatriots in England, Scotland, and Wales. The 1967 Abortion Act, which operates in the rest of the UK, was never extended to Northern Ireland, where it remains a criminal offense punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. This week the Supreme Court ruled in a split decision that Northern Irish women who travel to England are not entitled to receive free abortion on the NHS, the only medical procedure where this is the case. They can face charges of up to £2,000.

Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator commented, ‘We greatly welcome this announcement. The current constitution of Ireland is not only out of step with human rights, but causes an unequal situation between women who can afford to travel to England for an abortion and those who cannot. All women should be able to receive free, safe, and legal abortions local to them. We hope that this announcement is the next step towards achieving this for Irish women living in both the Republic and the North.’  


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on or 0781 55 89 636, or Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on or on 07470 395090.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns work on abortion:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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