Ireland’s Abortion Vote Is a Historic Victory. But It’s Not a Model for the U.S.

Protesters hold signs saying, "Time for Choice. Decriminalise Abortion."
An abortion rights rally supports the repeal of the Eighth Amendment on Monday in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Last week, a supermajority of Irish citizens voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the country’s constitution, which effectively banned almost all abortions. Though polls predicted victory for women’s rights activists, the outcome still came as a shock to those who were too cautious to hope that the overwhelmingly Catholic country would join the rest of Europe in decriminalizing the procedure.

The past few years have seen a far more socially liberal Ireland emerge from a rather punishing past. Gay people got legal civil unions in 2011 and equal marriage rights in 2015; two years later, Ireland elected its first openly gay prime minister. Abortion seemed to defy this progress. The Eighth Amendment was ratified by referendum in 1983, but as recently as 2013, major legislation was passed affirming that abortions were only legal in Ireland in cases where the pregnant woman was at risk of death, as confirmed by between one and three doctors, depending on her condition.

That makes the 66 percent of voters who elected to legalize abortion on Friday a powerful statement about the current landscape for reproductive rights in the country. The hundreds of Irish citizens dwelling in foreign countries who flew back for the vote—Ireland doesn’t allow absentee ballots—formed a symbolic phalanx that mirrored the more than 3,000 women who must leave the country each year to terminate their pregnancies. Women seeking abortion care in the future will enjoy more bodily autonomy and protection from avoidable medical complications than their forebears because of this historic vote.

But U.S. advocates for reproductive rights should see the Ireland win as a long-overdue coda to a national tragedy, not any sort of replicable victory. As it did with gay marriage in 2015, Ireland put human rights up to a vote. One of the bedrocks of a mature democracy is a principled balance between giving voice to the masses and protecting minority or historically oppressed populations. Sometimes, majority rule is kind to marginalized classes. Other times (remember Prop 8?), it isn’t. Either way, to subject the lives and livelihoods of these people to the will of the majority, and to determine their rights based on the strength of their get-out-the-vote efforts, is to reduce their humanity to a mere matter of opinion—a legally binding opinion.

That’s why I worry when abortion-rights advocates attempt to bolster the cause with claims that most Americans support legal abortion. The views of a woman’s fellow Americans should have no bearing on her ability to decide when and how her body bears children. Public opinion on abortion is also famously fickle and never so clear-cut. A 2017 Gallup poll found that a plurality of Americans (49 percent) think abortion is “morally wrong,” while 43 percent think it’s “morally acceptable.” There was just a 3-point gap, within the poll’s margin of error, between those who say they’re “pro-choice” and those who self-identify as “pro-life.” According to a 2017 Pew survey, 57 percent think abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 40 percent say it should be illegal. Unlike support for gay marriage, which saw a rapid and steady rise from 37 percent in 2009 to 62 percent in 2017, public opinion on abortion rights has bounced around over the past couple of decades: 60 percent supported legal abortion in all or most cases in 1995, but only 47 percent did in 2009. There’s no established arc toward justice here.

Touting public support for abortion rights makes sense when it’s to remind far-right politicians who are pushing extreme anti-abortion legislation that they are acting against the will of their constituents, as they have in gerrymandered Ohio, or when legislators are trying to ban Planned Parenthood from accepting Medicaid dollars, a measure large majorities oppose. But public opinion shouldn’t serve as a baseline argument for abortion rights, especially when it has already been weaponized to great effect against them. A small majority of people support the Hyde Amendment, the bit of legislation that prevents low-income women from using Medicaid and other federally funded health programs to pay for abortion care. Conservatives love to cite this statistic when the amendment comes up for renewal and when state legislatures vote on using state funds for abortions. They use the unwillingness of everyday Americans—even some 4 in 10 Democrats!—to extend the right to abortion access to low-income women to argue discrimination into law.

Even if a referendum could explicitly enshrine abortion rights in the U.S. Constitution, I would never wish the Irish model on us. To get to a place where two-thirds of voters would cast a ballot to repeal the Eighth Amendment, Irish women had to pay a terrible price. Since 1980, more than 168,000 women have left the country in secret, shrouded in shame, to get abortion care in England and Wales. Women unable to travel because of financial constraints, immigration status, or familial obligations were compelled against their will to carry pregnancies to term and give birth. One suicidal immigrant woman was forced to have a C-section at 25 weeks pregnant after being denied an abortion at Week 8. Savita Halappanavar, whose death at age 31 in 2012 is widely considered to be an impetus for Friday’s successful repeal, lost her life while waiting for her health to deteriorate enough that a doctor would rule her blood infection sufficiently life-threatening to warrant an abortion. Ireland had to witness decades of female indignity, suffering, and death before granting women the right to reproductive self-determination.

Here in the U.S., women are already being jailed for self-induced abortions and stillbirths, and they’re coping with shuttered abortion clinics—a result of heightened restrictions on the procedure—by attempting to terminate their own pregnancies with potentially injurious results. One recent poll found that 50 percent of Americans want abortion to be either totally illegal, only permitted to save a pregnant woman’s life, or only permitted in cases of rape, incest, or to save a pregnant woman’s life. The poll was funded by Marist College with the anti-abortion Knights of Columbus, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. But, for the sake of argument, it’s worth noting that if the U.S. legislated abortion by the will of these poll respondents, it wouldn’t be so far removed from the state of affairs Ireland is leaving behind. When women must depend on a benevolent, motivated public for their basic rights, the demise of those rights is only a whim away.