The 8th Amendment: What we will be voting for and how we get there

Last night’s Cabinet decision to formally agree to hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment marks the latest stage in deciding the amendment's future in our constitution.

The government made it clear last night they intend to ask the people to either retain or repeal and replace the Eighth Amendment with an enabling provision designating the Oireachtas as the authority to legislate for abortion.

However, before any such May 25 or June 8 vote takes place, a series of hurdles need to be overcome.

These are the wording of the referendum itself and the exact laws that would be introduced if the amendment is repealed.

In light of yesterday’s decision, the Government’s attention now must turn to the referendum bill and the 12-week limit health bill. Both are crucial.

The most pressing of these bills is the referendum bill, which, when completed, will include the exact wording of the referendum question.

The heads of bill for the referendum bill are expected to be published by the middle of February, before the bill itself is published at the start of March and debated in the Dáil and Seanad.

After those debates, President Michael D Higgins would be expected to sign off on the wording by the end of March, with a likely referendum date of either May 25 or June 8.

Like the legal timeline for the referendum bill, yesterday’s Cabinet meeting has also formally started the process for the potential replacement to the Eighth Amendment with an enabling provision designating the Oireachtas as the authority to legislate for abortion.

The detail of what legislation on abortion the government are proposing after any repeal vote will be addressed in the separate health bill.

The health bill is currently being drafted by the Department of Health, and focuses specifically on a likely new law allowing unrestricted access to abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

While the full bill will not be published until after a potential repeal referendum result, Government sources have confirmed its heads of bill will be revealed in mid-March when the referendum bill is debated in the Dáil and Seanad.

This is because of a long-standing position taken by the Government that as much information on what will potentially replace the Eighth Amendment be made available before the referendum.

Here, therefore, is a timeline for hurdles that need to be crossed before we take to the ballot box:

  • January 29: Special cabinet meeting formally confirms referendum plans, allowing work on a referendum bill and the 12-week abortion limit health bill to officially begin;
  • Middle of February: Heads of bill for the referendum bill to be published
  • Start of March: Full referendum bill published;
  • Middle of March: Referendum bill debated in Dáil and Seanad;
  • Middle of March: Heads of bill for the health bill to be published;
  • End of March: Referendum bill expected to be signed into law by President Michael D Higgins.

After these stages are complete the Government will set a date for a referendum and ask people to either repeal and replace the Eighth Amendment with an enabling provision designating the Oireachtas as the authority to legislate for abortion and enact the legislation set out in the health bill (and subsequent health bills) or retain the 8th Amendment and its inherent protection and recognition of the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child.

Crucially with regard to the referendum campaign the enabling provision will mean that subsequent changes and protections around abortion legislation within Ireland will lie solely with the Houses of the Oireachtas and not in the constitution which makes it impossible for any government to introduce legislation allowing for terminations in the womb except in exceptional circumstances.

The relative merits, dangers and need for any such change is likely to be at the centre of both campaigns.

- By Fiachra O'Cionniath & Digital Desk


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