Constitutionalizing Fetal Rights: A Salutary Tale from Ireland

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In 1983, Ireland became the first country in the world to constitutionalize fetal rights. The 8th Amendment to the Constitution, passed by a referendum of the People, resulted in constitutional protection for “the right to life of the unborn”, which was deemed “equal” to the right to life of the “mother”. Since then, enshrining fetal rights in constitutions and in legislation has emerged as a key part of anti-abortion campaigning. This article traces the constitutionalization of fetal rights in Ireland and its implications for law, politics and women. In so doing, it provides a salutary tale of such an approach. More than thirty years after the 8th Amendment it has become clear that Ireland now has an abortion law regime that is essentially ‘unliveable’. Not only that, but it has a body of jurisprudence so deeply determined by a constitutionalized fetal rights orientation that law, politics and medical practice are deeply impacted and strikingly constrained. This is notwithstanding the clear hardship women in Ireland experience as a result of constitutionalized fetal rights and the resultant almost-total prohibition on accessing abortion in Ireland. This article argues that, wherever one stands on the question of whether legal abortion ought to be broadly available in a particular jurisdiction, constitutionalizing fetal rights leaves no meaningful space for judgment at either political or personal levels. Furthermore, constitutionalizing fetal rights can have unforeseen implications across jurisprudence and medical practice, creating a situation in which there is essentially no space for more liberal interpretations that respect women’s reproductive autonomy. While this may be desirable from an ideological perspective for those who hold a firm anti-abortion position, it is distinctively problematic for women and for politics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)243-289
JournalMichigan Journal of Gender and Law
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Abortion
  • constitutional law


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