Irish government agrees to hold referendum on abortion ‘by end of May’

'If the referendum is passed, a doctor-led, safe and legal system for the termination of pregnancy will be introduced,' says Taoiseach 

Chris Baynes
Monday 29 January 2018 22:46
Pro-choice campaigners in Dublin in 2016
Pro-choice campaigners in Dublin in 2016

The Irish government has announced it will hold a national referendum “by the end of May” on reforming the country’s strict anti-abortion laws.

Leo Varadkar is expected to outline the government’s stance on the issue following a Cabinet meeting in Dublin to discuss details of the plebiscite.

The Taoiseach has already announced he will be campaigning to liberalise the law, and his Cabinet is expected to adopt a collective stance on the issue.

But Mr Varadkar has said ministers will be able to vote freely on the controversial matter.

Terminations are currently only allowed in the Republic of Ireland when the life of the mother is at risk. Women who have an abortion illegally can be jailed for up to 14 years.

The referendum will focus on the fate of the Eighth Amendment, the section of the country’s constitution that confers equal rights on a pregnant woman and her unborn child.

The public will not vote on the specifics of how the law will change but Mr Varadkar said a “doctor-led, safe and legal system for the termination of pregnancy will be introduced” if Ireland votes to repeal the amendment.

“In my opinion we cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions,” he added.

Last December, a report by a specially convened parliamentary committee concluded the amendment was not fit for purpose and should be repealed.

That followed recommendations from members of Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly about liberalising the law on terminations.

The parliamentary committee also recommended abortion be available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy without a woman having to explain her decision.

It also called for expectant mothers to be allowed an abortion at any stage of the pregnancy if doctors diagnosed a foetal abnormality that was likely to result in death before or shortly after birth.

Mr Varadkar said he had thought "long and hard" before deciding to support abortion without restriction in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

He said he came to that view after listening to medical experts, the public, his own Fine Gael party, ministers and friends.

"Above all I have listened to women," he said.

The Taoiseach added: "The saddest and loneliest journey is made by Irish women who travel to foreign countries to end their pregnancies. That doesn’t have to happen."

Speaking ahead of the Cabinet meeting, Health Minister Simon Harris said that he would outline proposals for a potential law change that he would put before the Dail in the event of the Eighth Amendment being repealed.

Mr Harris said that whatever the Cabinet agreed in relation to the referendum bill, the electorate would be asked whether or not they wanted to repeal the Eighth Amendment in full.

If the amendment in the constitution is repealed, any draft legislation would only become law if the Dail voted for it, and that is not a foregone conclusion given the Fine Gael coalition is a minority administration and TDs will vote on conscience.

The outcome of the referendum could also prompt a Supreme Court challenge over whether the Constitution as a whole contains an implied fundamental right for the unborn, on top of the specific terms of the Eighth Amendment.

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