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Dublin: 14°C Wednesday 17 August 2022

A quick runthrough of the legal terms you're going to hear in the referendum campaign

A referendum on whether to repeal or retain the Eighth Amendment will be held on 25 May.

Image: Niall Carson via PA Images

THERE ARE A lot of legal terms that will be coming up in the context of the abortion referendum over the next few week – many of which are important to understand.

But, often, they can be mentioned in media coverage without explanation.

And it’s easy to forget what some terms mean in the context of an already complex debate.

Here’s a handy guide:

The Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment is a part of the constitution which 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.

It’s an acknowledgement of the right to life of the unborn, equating it with the mother’s right to life.

Since it was voted on in 1983, clauses have been added that state the Eighth Amendment cannot limit a woman’s freedom to travel abroad, or a person’s right to information about legal abortion services in other states.

More on the history of the Eighth here.


Bunreacht na hÉireann (our Constitution)

The Irish Constitution is the foundation of law upon which the Republic of Ireland operates. To remove or amend any part of the constitution, the government of the day must ask the people through a referendum.

Articles are specific sections of the Constitution. Each article will deal with a topic that is enshrined in law. Article 15 deals with Dáil privilege, for example, and is broken into different sections (eg, Article 15.10, 15.12, 15.13).

The Eighth Amendment is referred to as Article 40.3.3.

Amendments to articles refers to revisions which were inserted into the Constitution as ‘additions’ or clarifications to the original article.

A Bill is the name given to legislation before it’s been passed and turned into a law, at that point it becomes an Act (there’s a comprehensive explainer on how a Bill becomes law here).

Citizens’ Assembly

The Citizens’ Assembly was set up by the Oireachtas to hear evidence on offering citizen insight to government on the Eighth Amendment.

Over five separate weekends between October 2016 and April 2017, 99 assembly members and their chairperson Justice Mary Laffoy heard a range of presentations on the issue, including testimony from legal professionals, medical professionals, women affected by the Eighth Amendment and 17 different advocacy groups.  

The majority of the Citizens’ Assembly recommended that abortion without restriction should be allowed (64%). Of that group, 48% agreed that abortion without restriction should be lawful up to the 12th week of pregnancy only, and 44% said it should be allowed up to the 22nd week of pregnancy only.

In cases of fatal foetal abnormality, it recommended terminations be permitted during any period of the pregnancy.

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Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment

The Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment, chaired by Senator Catherine Noone was tasked with examining the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.

The group heard testimonies from medical and legal experts, as well as personal stories, over the course of three months.

In December, it voted in favour of repealing the Eighth. It recommended for abortion without restriction to be legal up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Pro-life organisations and members of the committee repeatedly accused it of being biased as the majority of witnesses favoured repealing the Eighth Amendment. Noone and other members have denied these allegations.

There are two types of referendum in Ireland: a constitutional and an ordinary one.

When the Government wishes to change something in the Irish Constitution, it must do it by holding a constitutional referendum. The referendum gives the people a chance to vote for or against the proposed change or amendment to the Constitution.

When the Government wishes to introduce a law that is of national importance, the Seanad and the Dáil can petition the President to hold a referendum about the law.

If you have questions related to the debate on the Eighth Amendment referendum, email them into us:

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