How did we get here? A timeline of the abortion debate in Ireland

From the introduction of the 8th Amendment in 1983 to the announcement of a referendum in 2018

Written by Hannah Byrne


For the last 35 years, the abortion debate has remained a controversial topic in Irish society. Over three and a half decades, a number of landmark referendums, court rulings, legislation, and other major events, have shaped many of the arguments and discussions you will hear today.

Abortion in Ireland: A timeline

This timeline outlines some of the most significant events that have taken place in Ireland since 1983. These events were landmark moments in the abortion debate, which shaped our laws and our discussions around the 8th Amendment. 

There are numerous other events and cases that have taken place over the years that haven’t been included here. For a full timeline, visit the Irish Family Planning Association website.

1983 – The 8th Amendment is added to the constitution by referendum

The 8th Amendment, the common term for Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, was added to the constitution after a referendum in 1983. At the time, nearly 67% of Irish voters chose to support it. Abortion had already been illegal in the country since at least 1861, but the passing of the 8th Amendment meant it could never be legalised without another referendum.

Read more about the 8th Amendment here.

1992 – The X Case

In 1992, a case was brought before the Supreme Court by a 14 year old girl, known as Ms. X,  after the Attorney General tried to stop her from travelling to the UK for an abortion. The girl had been raped and her life was at risk from the possibility of suicide.

The Supreme Court ruled that Ms. X was entitled to an abortion in Ireland on the grounds that her life was at risk by suicide. The Supreme Court called on the government to legislate for abortion in cases where there is a real and substantial risk to the mother’s life.

1992 – Referendum (12th, 13th, and 14th Amendments)

Following the Supreme Court ruling in the X case, a referendum was held to address some of the issues that came out of the court case. These were:

  • To remove suicide as a grounds for abortion in Ireland: Rejected 65.4%
  • The freedom to travel outside of Ireland for a legal abortion: Passed 62.4%
  • The freedom to receive or give information on abortion services legally available outside of Ireland: Passed 59.9%

1995 – Regulation of Information (Services outside the State for the Termination of Pregnancies) Act 1995 enacted

Doctors, agencies and counsellors are now allowed to give information on abortion services legally available abroad if someone requests it. Information on parenting and adoption must also be provided at the same time.

The individual seeking an abortion must make the appointment themselves – doctors, agencies and counsellors are not allowed to make appointments on their behalf. 

2002 – Referendum (25th Amendment)  

A referendum was held in 2002 to remove the threat of suicide as grounds for an abortion. 

This referendum was defeated, with 50.42% voting against the proposal and 49.58% voting in favour.

2010 – European Court of Human Rights ruling

Following a complaint lodged by three women to the European Court of Human Rights in 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland had violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

It was ruled that the Irish State failed to make it clear whether one of the applicants, known as “C”, was entitled to an abortion due to the fact that her pregnancy could threaten her life because she had a rare form of cancer. There was no way for “C” to legally determine her rights because there were no procedures in place for her situation.

An expert group was put together two years later in January 2012 to advise the government on how to implement the ruling, beginning a process that would eventually lead to the passing of legislation in 2013.

2012 – Savita Halappanavar

In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar was admitted to hospital while she was pregnant. It became clear that she was miscarrying, and Savita requested an abortion. However, due to the presence of a foetal heartbeat, the hospital refused to terminate the pregnancy, arguing that they did not believe Savita’s life was in danger. Savita eventually miscarried and developed a blood infection called sepsis, and later died.

Savita’s death sparked debate across the country on the 8th Amendment and its role in her death. The event gained international media attention, and led to a number of marches and protests.

2013 – Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 passed

The 2013 Act legislated to allow abortion in Ireland where there is a real and substantial risk to the pregnant person’s life, including by suicide, and the only way to avoid that risk is by terminating the pregnancy. In doing so, the legislation addressed the outcomes of the X case in 1992, 21 years after the ruling, and the European Court of Human Rights ruling from 2010 on the case of “C”.

This legislation criminalises abortion in Ireland, with a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison if a person is found guilty of getting or delivering an abortion outside the what's allowed within the legislation. The legislation allows for abortion where the pregnant person’s life is at risk, with some conditions around determining whether or not a termination can take place: 

Physical condition

  • If the pregnant patient's life is at risk due to a physical condition, two specialists must agree that a termination is the only option to save their life. 
  • The specialists must be made up of one obstetrician (a doctor who specialises in pregnancy) and one doctor specialising in the area of the physical condition. The patient’s GP may also be consulted before the termination. 
  • The procedure is elective, meaning it will only be carried out if the pregnant person wants to do it.

Medical emergency

If there is a medical emergency, only one physician is needed to authorise and carry out the termination.

Risk of suicide

  • If a pregnant patient's life is at risk of suicide, a panel of three specialists must agree to allow the abortion.
  • The specialists must be made up of an obstetrician, a psychiatrist who has experience working with pregnant people, and another psychiatrist. The patient’s GP will also be consulted, with their consent. 
  • The procedure is elective, meaning it will only be carried out if the pregnant person wants to do it.

2016-2017 – Citizens' Assembly

In 2016, the government set up a Citizens’ Assembly to debate the need for another referendum on the 8th Amendment, among other constitutional issues. The Assembly was made up of 99 randomly-selected people from across the country and chaired by a Supreme Court judge. This group’s job was to consider the issue and recommend to the government whether to keep, change or remove the 8th Amendment.

The results of the Citizens' Assembly, published in April 2017, were as follows:

  • 87% of the members voted that Article 40.3.3 (the 8th Amendment) of the constitution should not be retained in full.
  • 56% of the members voted that Article 40.3.3 (the 8th Amendment) should be amended or replaced.
  • 57% of the members recommended that Article 40.3.3 (the 8th Amendment) be replaced with a Constitutional provision explicitly allowing the Oireachtas to legislate on the issue of abortion.

2017 – Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution

Following the Citizens' Assembly, the Assembly’s report was referred to a Joint Committee in the Oireachtas for consideration. The Committee brought together T.D.s and Senators from different political parties, as well as independents, to consider the report from the Citizens' Assembly and make a recommendation to the Dáil.

The recommendations made by the Committee included that:

  • Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution should be repealed.
  • Termination of pregnancy, with no restriction as to reason, should be allowed with a gestational limit of 12 weeks.
  • Termination of pregnancy should be allowed where there is a fatal foetal abnormality, that is likely to result in death before or shortly after birth, with no gestational limit.

Read the full report here.

2018 – Announcement of a referendum

It was announced on Monday 29 January 2018 that the government is to hold a referendum to remove Article 40.3.3. from the constitution and replace it. 

A Yes vote in the referendum would allow for the removal of the 8th Amendment from the constitution, and the introduction of an ‘enabling clause’ which would allow the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion in Ireland – something they are restricted in doing now because of the 8th Amendment.

Learn more about what we will be asked to vote on here.

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