Abortion vote date in jeopardy as Taoiseach calls for emergency Dáil debate

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has admitted the planned May date for the abortion referendum is in jeopardy unless the Dáil sits on Friday to ensure the timeline remains on track, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

Mr Varadkar said that the Government will effectively lose 10 days in the referendum build-up unless it holds an emergency Dáil debate this week.

As previously reported by the Irish Examiner, the Cabinet had intended to formally sign off on the ‘repeal and enable legislation’ referendum question yesterday.

It was unable to do so because the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on a related case on the constitutional rights of the unborn in time for the Cabinet meeting.

The seven-judge court is due to make its judgment known at a sitting in Limerick today, paving the way for the Cabinet to hold a special meeting tomorrow at 10am at which it will either rubber-stamp its planned referendum wording or consider a revised wording from the attorney general.

While the short delay may appear insignificant, it poses a genuine problem for the Government’s planned May 25 referendum.

Due to the fact the Dáil and Seanad are not sitting next week because of the ministerial St Patrick’s Day foreign trips, if the referendum question and its related bill is not put before the Dáil this week, the Government will be unable to act on it until the Oireachtas returns in a fortnight’s time.

If such a situation takes place, it would make it increasingly difficult to hold the referendum on May 25 — a date pro-choice supporters believe is crucial to ensure young people and students are in the country to vote — with a June date more likely.

Asked by Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith in the Dáil yesterday what measures are in place to ensure the referendum still takes place in May, Mr Varadkar said he remains hopeful the date will be met.

However, in a clear warning about the schedule, he said: “If we do not do that [hold a Friday Dáil sitting], we will lose around 10 days and that does jeopardise our ambition to have a referendum before the end of May.”

As a result of the tight scheduling, the Oireachtas business committee met for just under an hour yesterday to consider a potential Friday Dáil sitting.

Several committee members have told the Irish Examiner that while the move is likely, the committee will meet again at 1pm tomorrow to formally decide as it cannot do so until it knows the outcome of the Supreme Court ruling.

The committee is examining three options, including the Dáil sitting from 10.30am to 1.10pm on Friday or sitting for a full day on Friday.

It is also considering asking the Dáil to return from the St Patrick’s Day break a day early — on Tuesday week — or to request late- night sittings that week in order to give TDs time to examine the implications of the supreme court ruling, the referendum question, and a related Department of Health policy paper on the planned post-referendum 12-week abortion access law.

While the majority of those who spoke in the Dáil on the issue yesterday are in favour of debating the issue as soon as possible, pro-life Independent TD Mattie McGrath criticised the plan, saying that it is “all rush, rush, rush” and “indecent haste as far as I’m concerned”.

Policy paper

Women seeking an abortion face a ‘cooling-off’ period before being given access to abortion under planned post-referendum laws.

Health Minister Simon Harris will confirm the proposal in a health policy paper at a special Cabinet meeting at 10am tomorrow.

Government sources told the Irish Examiner this policy paper will be similar to the recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

It is understood it will include:

  • A cooling-off period, likely to be between two and three days and will not include compulsory counselling;
  • Abortion being allowed up to 12 weeks as part of a GP-led service;
  • A conscientious objection clause letting GPs decline to provide an abortion, as long as they give the person seeking it a list of other GPs in the area who will perform the procedure;
  • Guarantees that an abortion will only be allowed after sign-off by two doctors, most likely a GP and a gynaecologist;
  • Decriminalising women who seek abortions, although doctors who perform abortions outside of the legal stipulations can still be prosecuted.

- Irish Examiner


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