People across Ireland take to the polls on May 25 to vote in a highly anticipated referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
First voted into the Irish Constitution in 1983, the Eighth Amendment recognises the right to life of the unborn child, effectively placing a ban on abortion.
In 2013, however, The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was introduced to allow for abortions if the mother’s life is immediately threatened, including by suicide.
An estimated nine women travel to the UK a day to procure abortions, while a further three take abortion pills illegally.
According to Irish law, people who procure abortions illegally risk a 14-year jail term, although no woman has ever served jail time.
Pro-abortion rights campaigners are pushing to repeal the Eighth Amendment on the grounds that Ireland’s abortion laws are among the most restrictive in Europe, while anti-abortion rights campaigners want to retain it, arguing that human life encompasses the stages from conception to death.
The Irish government has proposed a bill which would allow women to have abortions ‘without specific indication’ up to the 12th week of pregnancy.
Leo Varadkar, taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland, said: “There will be a waiting period of 72 hours for reflection and counselling. Terminations beyond 12 weeks will remain illegal except in very specific circumstances.”
These would include mental health issues.
John McGuirk, director of communications at Save the 8th, an anti-abortion rights group, says late-term abortions on the grounds of the mother’s mental health are inhumane.
“This basically means that on mental health grounds, healthy babies can be aborted up to 24 weeks to 6 months,” he told Al Jazeera.
“In the UK, 97 percent of abortions are carried out on healthy women with healthy unborn children.
“Ireland is one of the few countries in the world which protects the unborn and people want to change this?
“Abortion does not cure a mental health problem – all it does is end the life of a healthy baby brutally.”
McGuirk believes the Irish public is in the dark about what the government is proposing.
“Pro-choice campaigners are focusing on the very small number of very distressing cases – those where women have to travel abroad to procure abortions when their baby suffers from fatal foetal abnormality of if they have been raped, but most abortions take place on healthy mothers, with healthy babies,” he said.
“Irish people would not vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment if they understood the law that would replace it,” psychiatric nurse Cathrina O’Sullivan said.
“It’s a lot cheaper to end the life of a baby than it is to support it,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I had a crisis pregnancy when I was 18. I live in Kerry, on the southwestern tip of Ireland.
“Had there been an abortion clinic in Kerry, or a doctor handing out abortion pills, my daughter wouldn’t be here.”
“A child is the greatest gift life could give me, and I was so close to not accepting it.
“In the UK, one in five pregnancies end in abortion, and we’re so close to importing that culture to Ireland. Life is a gift and not a problem.
“The Yes campaigners think that a crisis-pregnancy is the end of the world. It’s not. That’s why I’m voting no.”
Currently, 78 percent of the Irish population is Catholic, and members of the church are hoping their members will vote No.
The archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said the Catholic Church must be anti-abortion rights.
“Being pro-life is not an ideological position,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The Church needs to be a beacon of support at any vulnerable moment along the path of life.”
Ivana Bacik, a professor of law and labour senator, argues that the Eighth Amendment is “uniquely misogynistic”.
“Because of the Eighth Amendment, we could not legislate to allow abortion in cases of rape, nor where a pregnancy poses a serious risk to a woman’s health; nor even in cases where a baby is incapable of being born alive,” he said.
“Article 40.3.3 (the Eighth Amendment) needs to be removed as it does not address the health needs of Irish women and has put lives at risk.”
She argues that outlawing abortion does not prevent crisis pregnancy, but it has compounded the crisis of pregnancy, particularly for the women who undertake the journey to seek abortion abroad or take abortion pills illegally.
It is estimated that up to 3,000 women may take abortion pills each year in Ireland.
“It’s pretty simple, if you think the law is too restrictive, vote Yes to repeal,” Bacik told Al Jazeera.
“This is a once in a generational opportunity to vote. If we blow it now, that’s it.”
Bacik fears that if the Eighth Amendment is not removed, women procuring abortion pills will face criminal charges if caught.
“We’re not looking beyond May 25th. This is not a vote for or against abortion. It is already here. It is a vote to regulate abortion, and to make it safer.”
According to the Yes campaign, one in 20 women in Ireland have had an abortion.
Lisa Connell, a member of LGBT for Choice, insists that Irish women will have abortions regardless, and “voting No won’t stop that”.
“Irish people are ready for change,” she told Al Jazeera. “We’re still basking in the glow of the gay marriage referendum, which took place in May 2015.
“Even though its an entirely different issue, I think there are certain comparisons between the two,” Connell went on to say.
“A lot of people ask us, why are we involved? What’s it got to do with us?
“Principally, it’s about a fundamental human rights issue. Why shouldn’t women be able to access these?
“Why should women be in a situation where the life of their unborn foetus is on par with theirs?
“I’m standing in front of a Repeal the Eighth mural, which was painted over, as it as it constitutes ‘political activity’.
“It’s representative of how people in Ireland feel, ‘you can paint over a mural, but ultimately you can’t paint over an issue.
“You need to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself what kind of country you want to live in.
“I think that the gay marriage referendum mobilised a certain section of society and one of its biggest successes was the student movement.
“It’s naive to predict anything, it’s going to be tight, but I think Irish people are ready to Repeal the Eighth Amendment.”
Follow Barbara McCarthy on Twitter: @barbsmccarthy