The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, which introduces a constitutional ban on abortion by recognizing a right to life of an unborn child, is approved by referendum on September 7, 1983 and signed into law on October 7 of the same year. It is often referred to as the Irish Pro-Life Amendment.
The amendment is adopted during the Fine Gael–Labour Party coalition government led by Garret FitzGerald but is drafted and first suggested by the previous Fianna Fáil government of Charles Haughey. The amendment is supported by Fianna Fáil and some of Fine Gael, and is generally opposed by the political left. Most of those opposed to the amendment, however, insist that they are not in favour of legalising abortion. The Roman Catholic hierarchy supports the amendment, but it is opposed by the other mainstream churches. After an acrimonious referendum campaign, the amendment is passed by 67% voting in favour to 33% voting against.
Under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, abortion is already illegal in Ireland. However, anti-abortion campaigners fear the possibility of a judicial ruling in favour of allowing abortion. In McGee v. Attorney General (1973), the Supreme Court of Ireland had ruled against provisions of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935 prohibiting the sale and importation of contraception on the grounds that the reference in Article 41 to the “imprescriptable rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law” of the family conferred upon spouses a broad right to privacy in marital affairs. In the same year, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on similar grounds in Roe v. Wade to find a right to an abortion grounded on privacy.
The Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) is founded in 1981 to campaign against a ruling in in Ireland similar to Roe. Prior to the 1981 general election, PLAC lobbies the major Irish political parties – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Labour Party – to urge the introduction of a Bill to allow the amendment to the constitution to prevent the Irish Supreme Court so interpreting the constitution as giving a right to abortion. The leaders of the three parties – respectively Charles Haughey, Garret FitzGerald, and Frank Cluskey – agree although there is little consultation with any of their parties’ ordinary members. All three parties are in government over the following eighteen months but it is only in late 1982, just before the collapse of a Fianna Fáil minority government, that a proposed wording for the amendment is produced.
The referendum is supported by PLAC, Fianna Fáil, some members of Fine Gael, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy and opposed by various groups under the umbrella name of the Anti-Amendment Campaign (AAC), including Labour senator, and future President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, feminist campaigners, and trade unions.
There is currently a campaign for repeal of the Eighth Amendment in Ireland. This is led by both a coalition of human rights and pro-choice groups and has widespread support from a number of legal academics and members of the medical profession. In the run up to the 2016 general election, a number of parties commit to a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment and a group of feminist law academics publish model legislation to show what a post-Eighth Amendment abortion law could look like. In June 2016, Minister for Health Simon Harris states his support for a referendum on repealing the 8th.
On July 27, 2016, the government appoints Supreme Court judge Mary Laffoy as chair of a Citizens’ Assembly to consider a number of topics, including the Eighth Amendment.