Latest: Peadar Toibin says unborn has 'no voice'; Simon Harris calls on people to 'trust women' in abortion debate

Update 10.57pm:Health Minister Simon Harris and Sinn Féin's Peadar Toibin have debated the abortion referendum on RTE's Prime Time tonight.

Lorcan Price of Love Both, who was in the audience, said the Minister for Health never asked the Attorney General if the Constitution could be amended to cater for the "hard" cases of women who have been raped or cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Responding to the claim, Mr Harris said: "That would be extraordinary if it were true, we asked for medical and legal input and the Attorney General was consulted."

Mr Toibin, in summing up his argument for a No vote said: "Wanted, unwanted. There are not two classes of people- we are all one.

"The child is the weakest individual - she has no voice."

In reply, Mr Harris said: "The greatest protector of a pregnancy is the woman. We must trust her."

"We are all one in Ireland until you are a pregnant woman. It is a very, very lonely place."

During the debate, news broke that No campaigner and lawyer Maria Steen has withdrawn from tomorrow night’s final referendum debate on TV3.

It comes shortly after an evening of confusion surrounding the RTE Prime Time debate, when Maria Steen's involvement was proposed by the No side as a replacement for LoveBoth's Cora Sherlock, who had withdrawn her name.

RTE refused the switch in the hours before broadcast, saying Ms Steen had already been prominently featured in Claire Byrne Live last week.

It is not yet clear why Steen withdrew her name from tomorrow night's debate on the Pat Kenny Show Referendum Special.

RTÉ released a statement after the debate saying: "RTÉ was disappointed to learn that Cora Sherlock was unavailable to take part in tonight's RTÉ Prime Time programme, despite confirming her participation last week.

"The television debate on the referendum continued with the panel of Minister for Health Simon Harris and Peadar Tóibín TD, in addition to substantial contributions from the audience, which gave an equitable and fair opportunity to both sides to express their views."

Update 10.17pm:Mr Harris started off by saying: "It is about balance, we have to be able to protect women today," while Mr Toibin described the Government's draft proposals for abortion if the 8th amendment is repealed as "breathtakingly extreme".

Explaining that he has worked with victims of rape in Co. Meath, Mr Toibin said: "Meath will have legalised abortion in Meath before it has a Rape Crisis Centre."

Mr Toibin claimed that a GP with only six months training in psychiatry would be allowed to decide if a woman can have an abortion on the grounds of mental health. He then claimed that repealing the 8th would bring in abortion on demand.

Mr Harris said: "Calling it abortion on demand is obviously a tactic you are using, it's a phrase you have chosen to use.

"There is always a good reason for an abortion, when a woman packs her bags and gets on a plane to England to have an abortion, that's a crisis."

Update 9.50pm: Health Minister SImon Harris is having a head-to-head debate with Sinn Féin's Peadar Toibin on RTE's Prime Time, after LoveBoth spokesperson Cora Sherlock withdrew earlier.

Miriam O'Callaghan briefly addressed the pre-debate controversy by saying: "We were due to have two women on the panel, but unfortunately Cora Sherlock of the No campaign pulled out and, for balance, we had to reduce it to two (panellists)."

The No side had wanted to replace Ms Sherlock with Iona Institute lawyer Maria Steen, but RTE refused the idea, reportedly as Ms Steen was already prominently featured in last week's Claire Byrne Live.

The vacancy would have left an imbalance with two speakers on the Yes side of the debate (Simon Harris and consultant obstetrician Mary Higgins) and only one - Peadar Toibin - representing the No side.

Now, it is understood consultant obstetrician Mary Higgins will instead be a member of the audience, leaving Simon Harris and Peadar Toibin to debate each other on stage. Prof Higgins will still contribute, but from the audience, which will also feature lawyers for the No side.

Maria Steen

Earlier:

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith and Elaine Loughlin

A key live TV debate on the eighth amendment referendum has been thrown into disarray after a prominent pro-life campaigner pulled out of the contest just hours before it was meant to begin.

Love Both told RTE just before 6pm this evening that group spokesperson Cora Sherlock would not take part in the debate with Health Minister Simon Harris as planned, without giving any reason.

The live TV debate - which begins at 9.35pm on RTE One this evening - was promoted as a key final chance for pro-choice and pro-life campaigners to land a blow on each other.

In addition, it has been sought for a number of weeks by Ms Sherlock, who has repeatedly referenced a cut-out poster of Mr Harris the Love Both campaign has brought to all of its events over the past month to underline the Health Minister's alleged failure to debate.

Mr Harris has consistently said he is happy to speak with anyone about the upcoming referendum, leading to tonight's live TV debate - which will also include pro-life Sinn Féin TD Peadar Toibin and pro-choice consultant obstetrician Prof. Mary Higgins - being seen as a showdown between the two high-profile referendum figures.

However, in a shock move, the Love Both campaign contacted RTE representatives this afternoon to say Ms Sherlock will not be appearing, without giving any explanation as to the sudden change.

Save the 8th spokesman John McGuirk confirmed the dispute, and said the No side had proposed Maria Steen on Tuesday or Wednesday last week to represent them tonight. Lawyer Steen was a strong performer in last week's Claire Byrne Live debate.

John McGuirk said RTE "were resisting it, even though we all agree Maria is the correct person to represent us (tonight)".

The Irish Examiner understands RTE rejected the proposal out of hand, reminding Love Both officials that the station invites people to attend and that it is not the job of groups to decide who will appear at the last minute.

Ms Sherlock had initially agreed to take part in the debate last Thursday morning, leading to RTE finalising the planned line-up and publicly revealing it on Monday evening.

However, Love Both campaigner and barrister Ben O Floinn was reported this evening as saying "all 'no' groups" have decided Maria Steen should be "the joint nominee" for the pro-life side this evening.

"I have been asked by all the groups to press for her inclusion. RTÉ Prime Time are resisting this," Mr O Floinn is reported to have said.

A spokesperson for RTE declined to comment at this time, while Ms Sherlock did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the stand-off and the decision for her not to attend the live debate.


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