Ireland has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world. This week's historic referendum could change that. On Friday, Ireland will decide whether to repeal its Eighth Amendment and change its current abortion laws.

Ahead of the vote, thousands of people living abroad are returning home to Ireland to mark their ballots. The hashtag #HomeToVote trended on Twitter on Thursday, with many sharing their stories of just how far they had traveled to have their votes counted and their voices heard. Photos of both “yes” and “no” campaign posters on display across Ireland have dominated social media in recent weeks.

Here is a look at what Ireland is voting on, what “Repeal the Eighth” means and what might happen if a majority votes to ditch the amendment.


Activists from the “yes” campaign, urging people to vote yes in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, canvas voters in Dublin. (Barry Cronin/AFP/Getty Images)

When is the Irish abortion referendum?

Ireland will go to the polls from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday. The votes will be counted Saturday and a final result is expected before Sunday.

What is the Eighth Amendment?

The Eighth Amendment was added to the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland in 1983. It equates the right to life of a pregnant woman with that of her fetus, thereby nearly criminalizing abortion. As The Washington Post's William Booth outlined this week, the amendment outlaws almost all abortion — even in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal abnormality and risk to the woman's health.

The amendment has been called “archaic” and “dangerous” by the Abortion Rights Campaign and “yes” supporters.

The hashtag #RepealThe8th has been used increasingly on social media by “yes” campaigners in the run-up to Friday's vote. The hashtag has been used almost 90,000 times on Instagram, with users sharing photos of themselves wearing clothing with the word “Repeal” emblazoned on the front. Other search results for this hashtag include “her body, her choice” quotes and images of “Yes for Repeal” street art spray-painted onto walls.

Why is Ireland voting now?

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has long called for the country's near-total abortion ban to be revoked.

But the Eighth Amendment came under major scrutiny after the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Halappanavar, 31, went to a hospital in grave pain. Her doctors said a miscarriage was “inevitable,” but they refused to terminate her pregnancy. She died days later from sepsis, an infection of the blood. At the time, her husband said he thought an abortion might save her life. Her death sent shock waves through Ireland and led to widespread protests.

“She didn’t get the medical treatment she needed because of the Eighth Amendment,” Halappanavar's father told the Guardian this month.

In 2013, Ireland passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, allowing an abortion when there is a substantial risk to the mother's life. But many thought that the change was not enough progress, and that having an abortion in Ireland was still nearly impossible.

In September, the Irish government announced that it would hold an abortion referendum in 2018.


Campaigners for the Love Both antiabortion campaign canvass the public in Dublin on May 24, urging people to vote “no” in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution. (Barry Cronin/AFP/Getty Images)

Who wants the amendment to remain in place?

Many of the “no” campaigners consider abortion a human rights issue, arguing that fetuses deserve the same protection as babies. They argue, too, that legalizing abortion will lead pregnant women to terminate fetuses with genetic disorders. One antiabortion campaign features children and adults with genetic disorders and messages such as, “I was almost aborted. I’m someone. Not someone’s choice.”

The Catholic Church is also in favor of the ban. But clergy members are not leading the referendum campaigns. As Booth reported, “The church has lost much of its authority in the wake of scandals over priests sexually abusing children and the church hierarchy shielding them.”

What happens if Ireland votes no?

If the repeal fails, Ireland's abortion laws will stay the same.

And it seems unlikely that there would be another vote anytime soon. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has been calling the vote a “once-in-a-generation decision.” The last vote on the issue was 35 years ago.

What happens if Ireland votes yes? 

If a majority of voters vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, it will be removed from the Constitution. However, abortion won't automatically become legal.

Lawmakers must then create — and pass — a new set of guidelines.

They almost certainly will. Several of Ireland's most prominent politicians, including the prime minister, have said they support a repeal of the law.

Some have begun circulating the legislation they would pass if the amendment is repealed. In its current form, it would make abortion legal for all women in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Women who want an abortion would have to go to a doctor and be briefed on their options. They also would have to wait three days after that first meeting before terminating their pregnancy. If the woman chose to terminate, she would be given an abortion pill.

Under the new law, women who are more than 12 weeks pregnant would be permitted to have an abortion if their lives or health were at risk. (Two doctors would have to agree that the risk existed.) They also would be allowed if doctors agree that the fetus wouldn't survive outside the womb or would die of an abnormality shortly after.

After 24 weeks — which is when a fetus can survive outside the womb — abortion would be banned except if the fetus has a fatal abnormality.

Doctors may choose not to perform abortions if they oppose the procedure for moral reasons, but they must make arrangements for the patient to be transferred to a different practitioner.

The new law would decriminalize abortion for women. Doctors who perform an abortion outside the law, however, could be imprisoned for up to 14 years.

It's not clear how many lawmakers support the legislation or whether it will pass in its current form. Right now, the ruling party is in the minority, relying on the support of other groups to pass legislation. And parties may let some of their members oppose their own legislation because of the moral issues.

It's hard to predict what the new rules on abortion will look like. As David Kenny, a professor at Trinity College, said in the Irish Times: “The Government's control over the lawmaking process is not nearly as strong as it has typically been and parliament is much stronger. This adds some unpredictability, as the Government’s proposal may be altered by parliament against its will.”

What do the polls say?

Polls have generally shown good news for those who want a repeal. An Irish Times poll conducted in April, for instance, gave repeal a 47 percent to 28 percent lead. But with the gap narrowing and many voters still undecided — 20 percent, according to the Irish Times survey — there is still plenty of uncertainty.