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Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Irish referendum on abortion to be held by end of May, Taoiseach says

Written by Michelle Devane, David Young and Deborah McAleese

Voters in Ireland will be going to the polls in May to cast their vote on liberalising the country's restrictive abortion laws.

The Irish Government has formally backed proposals to hold a referendum on the state's constitutional amendment on abortion by the end of May.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Ireland already had abortion, but it was unsafe, unregulated and unlawful.

"In my opinion we cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions," Mr Varadkar said.

He outlined the Government's approach after a specially convened cabinet meeting in Government Buildings, Dublin on Monday evening.

Voters will be asked whether they want to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which gives equal right to life to the mother and the unborn, and replace it with new wording to allow parliament to legislate on abortion in the future.

The Taoiseach said if people voted to repeal, the Government would then table draft legislation that would allow for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.

Terminations are currently only allowed in the Irish Republic when the life of the mother is at risk and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is 14 years in prison.

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report by a specially convened parliamentary committee found the Eighth Amendment was not fit for purpose and should be repealed.

That followed recommendations from members of Ireland's Citizens' Assembly to liberalise the law on terminations.

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

"I know this will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make," said Mr Varadkar.

"I know it is a very personal and private issue and for most of us it is not a black and white issue, it is one that is grey - the balance between the rights of a pregnant woman and the foetus or unborn.

"It is a matter for people to make their own decision based on the evidence they hear, compassion and empathy and I want the debate to be respectful on all sides and it should never be personalised."

Mr Varadkar said: "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."

He said: "I don't believe the constitution is the place for making absolute statements about medical, moral and legal issues, an issue which is not black and white and can never be explained in black and white."

His comments came after he announced on Saturday that he would be campaigning for more liberal abortion laws.

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.

Mr Varadkar added: "The question has to be a yes or no one - do we reform our abortion laws or do we leave them as they are?

"For my part I will advocate a yes vote. My own views have evolved over time - life experience does that."

While the cabinet has adopted a collective position on the issue, Mr Varadkar said ministers will be free to oppose the Government and take different positions on the contentious matter.

The referendum will focus on the fate of the Eighth Amendment, not on the specifics on how the law would change if the constitution was altered.

In the course of the four-hour meeting, Ministers were briefed on the matter by the Attorney General, who advised against a straightforward repeal of the amendment.

Health Minister Simon Harris was given permission to draft a bill to be put before the Dail in the event of the Eighth Amendment being repealed.

He has been working with officials in his department and the Attorney General on the wording of the referendum, which is expected to be formally published at the beginning of March.

Mr Harris said: "Just because an issue is complex or sensitive it does not mean it can be ignored.

"I welcome the decision the government has made. It is very important to stress any legislation to amend constitution would remain subject to review.

"The government does not intend to, or wish to, limit the power of our courts to interpret law.

"Anyone who wants any change to our regime it is necessary to repeal the Eighth.

"This issue is not going away. It is time for the people of Ireland to have their say on that."

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone said: "As an independent woman sitting at the cabinet table I believe we have reached a significant moment and I am full of emotion at this time.

"As we continue our preparation for a referendum it is my firm hope we will have a respectful debate based on the facts.

"I hope we will live together in an Ireland someday soon where abortion is safe, legal and rare."

If the electorate vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, 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.

The exact date for the referendum has not been formally agreed, but the Taoiseach said it would be before the end of May.

The polling date can only be set after both the Dail and the Seanad have passed a referendum bill.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Niall Carson / PA Wire.