International Safe Abortion Day: the road to safe, lawful abortion

We all remember the 25th of May 2018…

Whether you were at Dublin Castle straining to hear figures being called out, or at home watching the count with loved ones, it was an emotional and historic day for us all.

We do not have to tell you how hard the women of the Republic of Ireland fought to achieve safe access to a lawful abortion. We do not have to bring you back to those harrowing few months, those difficult conversations, and that unwavering bravery. However, on this International Safe Abortion Day 2020, it is important to reflect on how far we have come. Here are a few important milestones we faced on the way to the historic repeal of the 8th amendment in 2018.


Abortion was a criminal offence in the Republic of Ireland since 1861. However, in 1983 the 8th amendment was added to our constitution, protecting the life of the unborn. Article 40 3.3.3 was passed by referendum in a bitter campaign and read:

“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.”

This tiny line in black and white was to become one of the most contested legal utterings in Irish history. It made a point of equating the life of the unborn from conception, to the life of the mother - point-blank, no exceptions.


1992 was the year of the X case. A 14-year-old child known as X became pregnant as a result of rape and challenged the Supreme Court for the right to travel for an abortion. The court ruled that her life was at a ‘real and substantial risk’ as she was suicidal. As the 8th protects the life of the mother equally, she was allowed to travel. Later that year, the Government put forward possible amendments to the Constitution in a referendum. The Irish people voted in favour of

  • The freedom to travel outside the State for an abortion.
  • The freedom to obtain or make available information on abortion services outside the State.


These amendments were signed into law in 1995 under the Regulation of Information (Services outside the State for the Termination of Pregnancies) Act 1995.

Under this act doctors, advisory agencies, and individual counsellors could give information about abortions services abroad if this was given privately and alongside info on parenting and adoption. These doctors etc. were forbidden to make an appointment on behalf of a patient for an abortion.


Anti-abortion campaigns put pressure on the Government and a referendum is called. The government put forward an amendment that would overturn the ruling in the X case and remove the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion. The nation reject this.


In 2007 a 17-year-old known as Miss D was diagnosed with an anencephalic pregnancy. She made plans to travel for an abortion but the HSE contacted Gardaí to stop her.

Miss D challenged the High Court for the right to travel but refused to say she was suicidal. This meant she was not relying on the ruling in the X case. However, The High Court granted her the right to travel.


In 2010, The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Republic of Ireland had failed to implement the constitutional right to a lawful abortion when a woman's life is at risk.

In the same year, a courageous woman named Michelle Harte became pregnant while she was receiving cancer treatment. She was advised that the pregnancy could be life-threatening, but Cork University Hospital refused to authorize a legal abortion because Michelle's life was not at immediate risk.  She was forced to travel to the UK for abortion. She died in 2011.


In 2012, Savita Halappanavar died in Galway University Hospital. She was refused a termination during a miscarriage because the fetal heartbeat could be heard.


In 2013, The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was signed into law by Michael D Higgins. This officially legalized abortion in cases where the pregnant woman's life was at risk.


In 2016, The UN recommended that abortion be decriminalized in the Republic of Ireland. The Citizens Assembly was set up to get to the bottom of this age-old issue and met for the first time in October.


In 2017 several UN committees publicly criticized our harsh abortion laws and call for reform. After months of deliberating and hearing from international experts on abortion and human rights, The Citizen’s Assembly published their report. In it, they recommended that abortion should be lawful where the life or the physical or mental health of the woman is at risk, or in cases of fatal (as distinct from non-fatal) foetal abnormality, up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.


In January 2018 the Cabinet announced their plans to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment. This as we all know, was held and passed on May 25th in a landslide vote for repeal. Later that year, the contested article was removed officially from Bunreacht na hÉireann and Michael D signed The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 into law.

On paper, safe abortion has been legal in the Republic of Ireland since the 1st of January 2019.

There are many terms and conditions of this, such as a 3-day waiting period, a time limit of 12 weeks into gestation and only when the health or mental health (as opposed to life) of the pregnant person is at risk or in cases of fatal foetal anomaly.

However, we all know that stigma, insufficient education and now the new threat posed by COVID-19 can stop women from accessing safe abortion services. It is crucial to keep the conversation going about the importance of safe abortion so that we never returns to the pain and shame that existed in the past.

If you or someone you know is dealing with a crisis pregnancy, the HSE My Options freephone line can be reached at 1800 828 010.

Source: Irish Family Planning Association

With her daughter Evie as her muse, Anna writes about mumhood and all its intersections from mental health to movies, social issues to pop culture. Anna lives in Dublin with her daughter, partner, three younger sisters and parents. She is a dreadful cook, a fair guitar player and thinks caffeine should be given as a yearly vaccine to parents - courtesy of the HSE.

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