Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland

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The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland introduced a constitutional ban on abortion by recognizing a right to life of an unborn child. It was effected by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1983, which was approved by referendum on 7 September 1983 and signed into law on the 7 October of the same year.

The amendment was adopted during the Fine GaelLabour Party coalition government led by Garret FitzGerald but was drafted and first suggested by the previous Fianna Fáil government of Charles Haughey. The amendment was supported by Fianna Fáil and some of Fine Gael, and was generally opposed by the political left. Most of those opposed to the amendment, however, insisted that they were not in favour of legalising abortion. The Roman Catholic hierarchy supported the amendment, but it was opposed by the other mainstream churches. After an acrimonious referendum campaign, the amendment was passed by 67% voting in favour to 33% voting against.

Changes to the text[edit]

The Amendment inserted a new sub-section after section 3 of Article 40. The resulting Article 40.3.3° 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.


Under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, abortion was already illegal in Ireland. However, anti-abortion campaigners feared 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) was founded in 1981 to campaign against a ruling in in Ireland similar to Roe.[1] Prior to the 1981 general election, PLAC lobbied 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 – agreed although there was little consultation with any of their parties' ordinary members.[2] All three parties were in government over the following eighteen months but it was only in late 1982, just before the collapse of a Fianna Fáil minority government, that a proposed wording for the amendment was produced.

Oireachtas debate[edit]

The bill introduced by the Fianna Fáil minority government proposed to introduce the following clause into Article 40.3 of the Constitution:

3° 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.

Fine Gael initially supported the wording, but when in government, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald was advised by his Attorney General, Peter Sutherland, that the wording as proposed was dangerously flawed. Speaking against the original wording during the Dáil debate Alan Shatter argued:

The irony is that I have no doubt, not merely from the interpretation the Attorney General has given but from the other interpretations that can be validly taken from the amendment, that if it in its present form becomes part of our Constitution it will essentially secure a constitutional judgment in the not too distant future requiring the House to enact legislation to permit women to have abortions.

— Dáil Eireann Debate Vol. 340 No. 3 Col. 533.[3]

To remedy the perceived weaknesses in the original wording of the amendment bill, the government proposed an amendment to the bill during the committee stage with the following alternative wording:

3° Nothing in this Constitution shall be invoked to invalidate, or to deprive of force or effect, any provision of a law on the ground that it prohibits abortion.

This alternative wording was criticised by the opposition for not being "pro-life". Speaking against the alternative wording Michael Woods TD said that:

The amendment proposed by Fine Gael would not protect the constitutional right to life of the mother against attack by any future legislation which sought to prohibit abortion in all circumstances even when the life of the mother was at risk. This is a defect which could be important in the future. Such legislation could not be declared unconstitutional on the grounds that it ignored a mother's right to life because the Fine Gael wording provides that nothing in the Constitution may be invoked to invalidate any law which prohibits abortion.

— Dáil Éireann Debate Vol. 341 No. 10 Col. 2021[3]

A number of backbench Fine Gael TDs supported the Fianna Fáil wording, and voted against the government amendment, which was defeated by 87 to 65. The majority of Fine Gael TDs then abstained in subsequent votes. The original wording proposed by Fianna Fáil was then approved by 85 votes to 11 votes in the Dáil and by 14 votes to 6 in the Seanad and put to referendum.

Referendum campaign[edit]

The referendum was supported by PLAC, Fianna Fáil, some members of Fine Gael, 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, and feminist campaigners.[citation needed] Few in Fine Gael or Labour campaigned against the referendum, and before the vote, Garret FitzGerald declared that would would vote against it. Sinn Féin and the Workers' Party strongly opposed the amendment[citation needed] and the Irish Council of Churches (representing the main Protestant churches) campaigned against it.[4] The Amendment passed on 7 September 1983 endorsed by 67% of those who voted.


Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland referendum[5]
Choice Votes  %
Referendum passed Yes 841,233 66.90
No 416,136 33.10
Valid votes 1,257,369 99.32
Invalid or blank votes 8,625 0.68
Total votes 1,265,994 100.00
Registered voters and turnout 2,358,651 53.67

Judicial interpretation[edit]

In a number of cases, the Supreme Court had held that this provision of the Constitution prohibited information within the state on the availability of abortion services outside of the state. In AG (SPUC) v Open Door Counselling Ltd. (1988), the courts injunction restraining two counseling agencies from assisting women to travel abroad to obtain abortions or informing them of the methods of communications with such clinics, and in SPUC v Grogan (1989), the courts granted an injunction restraining three students' unions from distributing information in relation to abortion available outside the state. These rulings were overturned by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1992.

In Attorney General v. X (the X Case) in early 1992, the High Court granted an injunction to the Attorney General restraining a fourteen-year-old girl who had been raped from obtaining an abortion in England. On appeal, Supreme Court found that as the girl had shown a risk of suicide, to safeguard "the equal right to life of the mother" in Article 40.3.3°, abortion was permissible in this instance.

The Pro Life Campaign, a successor to PLAC, accused the Supreme Court of misinterpreting both the law and the will of the people. The Government and former Attorney-General Peter Sutherland dismissed such claims, arguing that, as they had claimed in 1983, the 'Pro-Life Amendment' was so poorly worded and ambiguous that it could facilitate either pro-choice or anti-abortion interpretations in different circumstances. The Amendment was not reinterpreted by the Supreme Court on the grounds originally voiced by Peter Sutherland that it would lead to abortion prior to viability or kill women by refusing standard treatments for ectopic pregnancies, cancerous wombs, etc. There was no medical evidence called during the X case hearings.

In PP v. HSE (2014), the High Court held that the constitution did not require a woman who was medically brain dead to be kept on life support to keep the foetus within her alive.

Subsequent referendums[edit]

Three referendums were held in November 1992. The Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1992 sought to exclude "a risk of self-destruction" as grounds for abortion, to overturn the central element of the decision in the X Case. This was rejected by 65% to 35%. The Thirteenth Amendment, permitting travel to obtain abortion in another jurisdiction, was approved by 62% to 38%. The Fourteenth Amendment, permitting information about services in other countries, was approved by 60% to 40%.

After these amendments, Article 40.3.3° now reads,

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 subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.

A further referendum which sought to overturn the X Case, the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland Bill, 2002 was narrowly defeated by 50.4% to 49.6%.


The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 brought the law on abortion in Ireland up to date, replacing the offences in the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and taking into account the limited right to abortion established by the X Case. It replaced the offence of "unlawfully procuring a miscarriage" punishable to life imprisonment with the offence of "destruction of unborn human life", punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment.[6][7]

Further proposed changes[edit]

In February 2015, a private member's bill proposed by Clare Daly to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality was rejected in the Dáil; the government argued that the bill was unconstitutional, which Daly disputed.[8][9][10]

Repeal the Eighth[edit]

There is a strong campaign for repeal of the Eighth Amendment in Ireland. This is led by both a coalition of human rights and pro choice groups (Coalition to Repeal the 8th) and has widespread support from a number of academics in law and from members of the medical profession. In the run up to the 2016 general election a number of parties committed to a referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment (Labour,[11] Green Party,[12] and Sinn Féin[13]) and a group of feminist law academics published model legislation to show what a post-8th Amendment abortion law might look like.[14] The Taoiseach has committed to establishing a Citizens Assembly to consider whether and how to repeal the 8th Amendment, although details of the Assembly have not yet been released. In June 2016, Minister for Health Simon Harris stated his support for a referendum on on repealing the 8th.[15]

See also[edit]


Oireachtas debates[edit]

House 1st stage 2nd stage Committee stage Report stage Final stage
Dáil 2 Nov 1982; 2 Feb 1983 Feb 9, 17 (1) 17 (2), 23; Mar 2, 8, 24 Apr 27 (1), 27 (2) Apr 27
Seanad May 4, 5, 10, 11 May 18, 19 (1), 19 (2) May 25 (1) 25 (2) 25 (3), 26 May 26


  1. ^ Government of Ireland. All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, ed. Green Paper on Abortion (PDF). Fifth Progress Report: Abortion (Dublin: Stationery Office). p. A589. ISBN 0-7076-6161-7. Archived from the original (pdf) on 21 July 2011. 
  2. ^ Barry Gilheany (1998). Vicky Randall, ed. The state and the discursive construction of abortion. Gender, Politics and the State (Reprint ed.) (Routledge). p. 72. ISBN 9780415164023. 
  3. ^ a b Dáil Eireann Debate Vol. 340 No. 3 Col. 533.
  4. ^ http://www.thejournal.ie/1982-irish-council-of-churches-opposed-anti-abortion-amendment-709821-Dec2012/
  5. ^ "Referendum Results" (PDF). Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Retrieved 12 March 2012. 
  6. ^ "Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, §22". Irish Statute Book. Attorney-General of Ireland. 30 July 2013. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  7. ^ "Head 18: Repeal and Consequential Amendments and Head 19: Offence" (PDF). General Scheme of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 (PDF). Irish Government News Service. 30 April 2013. pp. 30–32. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  8. ^ "Protection of Life in Pregnancy (Amendment) (Fatal Foetal Abnormalities) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) [Private Members]". Dáil Éireann debates. 10 February 2015. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  9. ^ O'Connell, Hugh (10 February 2015). "‘A shameful abandonment’: Just one Labour TD defies party as Clare Daly’s abortion bill voted down". TheJournal.ie. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  10. ^ "Protection of Life in Pregnancy (Amendment) (Fatal Foetal Abnormalities) Bill 2013 [PMB] (Number 115 of 2013)". Bills 1997–2015. Oireachtas. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  11. ^ https://www.labour.ie/manifesto/reproductive-healthcare/
  12. ^ https://greenparty.ie/policies/green-party-reproductive-rights-policy/
  13. ^ http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/39220
  14. ^ http://journals.kent.ac.uk/index.php/feministsatlaw/article/view/174/634
  15. ^ http://www.newstalk.com/Simon-Harris-wants-a-referendum-on-repealing-the-8th

External links[edit]