Taoiseach: Without repealing the 8th Amendment, we can never change our abortion laws

A referendum on Ireland's constitutional restriction on abortion will take place by the end of May, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has announced.

Citizens will be asked whether they want to retain the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution - that enshrines equal rights for the mother and unborn - or repeal it and replace it with an enabling provision that allows the Dáil to legislate on the issue, Mr Varadkar said.

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.

After a four-hour cabinet meeting on the contentious issue at Government Buildings, Mr Varadkar said: "I know this will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make.

"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."

Mr Varadkar said Health Minister Simon Harris would prepare draft legislation proposing laws allowing for unrestricted abortions up to 12 weeks that would be published prior to the referendum.

Those proposed law changes would only be tabled on the floor of the Dáil for a vote in the event of the referendum backing repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

Mr Varadkar said the draft laws would only permit abortion after 12 weeks in "exceptional circumstances", such as a serious risk to the life or health of the woman or in the event of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Addressing the press after a four-hour Cabinet meeting on the contentious issue, the Taoiseach said if the Eighth Amendment was repealed abortion would "no longer be an article in the constitution, rather a personal, private matter for women and their doctors".

Update 10.33pm: Health Minister Simon Harris said the Government was moving towards giving Irish people a chance to have their say on the issue of abortion for the first time since 1983.

"The Constitution is not the place for us to address this aspect of women's healthcare," he said.

"Change cannot happen in this country in this area," as long as the 8th Amendment remains in place.

Simon Harris said he hoped to publish the Referendum Bill at the start of March, which will prepare the way for a referendum in late May. Ministers have also agreed to establish a referendum commission.

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said: "The way has been cleared for the people to have their say."

"It is my firm hope we will have a respectful debate based on the facts," she added.

Minister Zappone said she hoped that Ireland would be some day soon a country where abortion is "safe, legal and rare".

The Taoiseach said the referendum would ask voters whether they supported the removal of Article 40.3.3 from the Constitution and insert wording to the effect that "provision can be made by law for the regulation of the termination of pregnancies".

The decision to hold a referendum was unanimous among Cabinet, the Taoiseach said.

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."

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."

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 the 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."

Mr Varadkar repeated that without repealing the 8th Amendment, no change was possible in Ireland's abortion laws.

Update 10.27pm: A referendum on the Eighth Amendment will be held at the end of May, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has announced.

At a press conference following a special Cabinet meeting on the Eighth Amendment, the Taoiseach said: "We cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions".

Confirming that the Government has agreed to hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, he said: "We know women obtain abortion pills through the post.

"We already have abortion in Ireland - unsafe, unregulated and unlawful. I don't believe the Constitution is the place for making absolute statements on medical or moral issues.

"As a former Minister for Health I don't think we can continue with a situation where women are risking their lives with online medicines."

Mr Varadkar acknowledged this would be "a difficult decision for the Irish people to make...It's not a black and white issue; it is grey."

He called for a respectful debate on all sides.

He said that while he was Minister for Health, he became convinced that abortion had "no place in our Constitution".

He added: "Doctors seeking advice on what to do in difficult (maternity) situations should seek it in medical guidelines, not in Bunreacht na hÉireann."

Nearly 2,000 women take abortion pills each year, without any medical advice. He said this was "sure to result in another tragedy".

After 12 weeks, he said, abortion would only be allowed in exceptional circumstances, such a serious risk to the life and health of the woman or in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Update 10.15pm: At Cabinet, Tánaiste Simon Coveney told colleagues he cannot support the recommendation of allowing abortion for 12 weeks without restriction. 

However, he will support repeal and all other committee recommendations.

The Tánaiste said he is "united with Cabinet colleagues in agreeing to repeal the Eighth amendment and allow enabling legislation".

However, he also said that "while there are differing viewpoints on the content of that legislation, particularly on 12 weeks access unrestricted, that is a matter for the Oireachtas to now debate. My views are clear on that and I expressed them at Cabinet."

Update 9.50pm: The Government has tonight agreed to hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution by the end of May, writes Daniel McConnell.

The people will be asked to repeal article 40.3.3 and replace it with a provision to enable the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion.

After a four-hour meeting the Cabinet formally agreed to allow Minister for Health Simon Harris to draft a referendum Bill to pave the way for a public vote by the end of May.

It was agreed to ask people to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution and replace it with an enabling provision giving the Oireachtas the power to legislate for abortion.

According to sources, Mr Varadkar stated his belief that the current position is too restrictive and needs to be liberalised. He confirmed his intention to campaign in this regard.

At Cabinet, Attorney General Séamus Woulfe advised the Cabinet against a straightforward repeal, known as repeal simpliciter, and insisted an enabling provision should be inserted into the Constitution in the event of a repeal.

The provision, which would state that the Oireachtas has the power to legislate for abortion, is necessary because it would provide greater legal certainty and would minimise the risk of a successful legal challenge, Mr Woulfe said.

Such advice was expected to be challenged by several Ministers, including Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and Minister for Transport Shane Ross.

Mr Ross sought an explanation as to the value of an enabling provision and why one was necessary.

However, Mr Ross and Ms Zappone stressed they would accept the advice of Mr Woulfe on the matter.

Opposition parties will be briefed on the contents of Mr Woulfe’s advice later this week, but it will not be published.

Update 9.44pm: The Government is to hold a press conference at 10pm.

Update 9.25pm: The special Cabinet meeting to decide the shape of the abortion referendum has just concluded.

A press conference is expected to follow.

Update 9pm: A special Cabinet meeting to decide the shape of the abortion referendum is running over time at government buildings tonight.

They are expected to approve the question that is to be put to the people, and the date of the vote on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

A press conference was due to take place at 8.30pm, but it is understood the meeting is still underway.

RTÉ are reporting that the meeting is expected to finish some time after 9.30pm.

7.20pm: Simon Harris: Cabinet will follow Attorney General's advice on Eighth Amendment referendum

The Health Minister Simon Harris says they will follow the advice of the Attorney General as to what the question should be in an abortion referendum.

The Cabinet is holding a special meeting at the moment to discuss the issue.

Mr Harris will bring three issues to Cabinet, including the formal permission to hold a referendum, his approach on the wording of the vote, and a request to draft a general scheme for follow-up legislation on abortion if voters support repeal.

The referendum legislation is likely to be ready by early March, while draft follow-up legislation should be agreed in April.

Minister Harris says they are taking legal advice on what question should be put to the people.

He said: "It's simply a question as to whether it brings greater legal certainty to put in an enabling provision that points out that the Oireachtas can legislate in this area.

"In some regards that's stating the obvious, of course it's the Oireachtas that legislates, who else legislates other than the Oireachtas?

"But we'll have to take very clear legal advice from the Attorney General and I think it would be prudent and important for the Government to follow the Attorney General's advice."

However, Labour TD Alan Kelly says whatever advice the Attorney General gives, it should be made public.

Mr Kelly said: "We'd need to see the wording on that, obviously we're very supportive of the referendum and of the committee's recommendation, so we'd need to see the wording.

"But because it's such an extraordinary situation, we believe that the advice that the Government are taking on this probably needs to be published to give confidence that it is the right decision because there would be an alternative view to what the committee got.

"And obviously that would breed concern, so we think it should be published."

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.

Ahead of the meeting, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said that early summer was the preferred time to hold a ballot on the matter.

"We'll talk about some of the timelines involved as to perhaps how quickly we can progress the referendum on the Eighth," Mr Murphy said.


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