Ireland's Supreme Court has unanimously ruled on Wednesday that unborn babies do not have inherent constitutional rights beyond the right to life enshrined in the country's Eighth Amendment.
In a landmark ruling, the seven-judge court has overturned a High Court decision last summer that affirmed the rights of the unborn child beyond the constitutionally protected right to life.
"The present constitutional rights for the unborn are confined to the right to life guaranteed in article 40.3.3 (the Eighth Amendment)," Chief Justice Frank Clarke told the Supreme Court, as reported by Sky News.
The Eighth Amendment of Ireland's Constitution enshrines the right to life of the unborn, rendering abortion illegal other than in exceptional circumstances.
Wednesday's ruling appears to clear the way for the government's abortion referendum that was planned for the end of May.
The referendum, proposed by the government in January, would allow voters to decide whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment and replace it with wording that would allow politicians to set the nation's abortion laws in the future.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar had decided to wait for the Supreme Court judgment in a case that was being appealed by the state before finalizing the exact wording and date of the referendum.
The case involved an immigration dispute in which a Nigerian national sought to revoke a 2008 deportation order, arguing that the unborn child being carried by his Irish partner had multiple rights, including the right to the company of the father.
The High Court agreed that the unborn enjoyed the rights beyond the right to life set out in the Eighth Amendment, prompting the state to appeal the ruling. The state had argued that the unborn only has the right to be born and all the other constitutional rights take effect at birth.
Varadkar had vowed that the government would introduce a measure that would allow unrestricted abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy if the voters backed a change to the constitution through the May referendum.
If the Supreme Court had upheld the High Court decision, the referendum might have needed to be broadened to cover to account for other elements of the constitution, according to The Metro.
"Today the Supreme Court made a landmark decision," said Sen. Catherine Noone. "This judgment will allow us to move forward to a May referendum on the Eighth Amendment," she added.
The Supreme Court ruling has been decried by the pro-life group Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).
"This perverse ruling makes it abundantly clear that if Article 40.3.3 is repealed unborn babies will not only lose their current constitutional protection but will be exposed to abortion on demand up to birth," said Pat Buckley, SPUC's Republic of Ireland officer.
"We must all redouble our efforts to ensure that the 8th Amendment is retained and that unborn babies are properly protected," he added.