Cabinet split emerges over unease at 12-week abortion access

Allowing unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy may be “a step too far” and goes “further than many would have anticipated”, said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Mr Varadkar raised the concern despite ministers being warned at Cabinet that they will lose their political cover if they deviate from the recommendations by the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment or try to “unpick” its findings.

During a two-hour Cabinet meeting yesterday, ministers were given an overview of the committee report published last month and the likely timeline between now and the expected abortion referendum in late May or early June.

The meeting — during which all ministers present spoke — heard that the majority of the Cabinet back the recommendations, with chief whip Joe McHugh, Defence Minister Paul Kehoe, Education Minister Richard Bruton, Business Minister Heather Humphreys, and Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring raising concerns over the 12-week-limit.

The meeting also heard Mr Varadkar confirm he will make his views on the issue known after next week’s Dáil and Seanad debates, and that he will allow ministers to campaign based on their personal views.

Despite a strong warning at Cabinet that deviating from the committee’s recommendations will remove the Government’s political cover, Mr Varadkar told reporters ongoing concerns over the 12-week limit show the recommendation may be “a step too far”.

“I think it’s fair to say that, for a lot of people not just in the Cabinet but in the country, the proposal to allow for terminations up to 12 weeks went further than many people would have anticipated.

“It certainly went further than I would have anticipated a year or two ago.

“But, having read the committee report, I also understand the logic behind that [the recommendation], particularly given the widespread availability now of the abortion pill.

“There is a concern, understandably, among many politicians and perhaps for the majority of the public that proposal might go a step too far. But then again, perhaps not. That’s the debate we’re going to have over the next few months,” he said.

The comments came as ministers were given a clear warning about the risks of deviating from the committee’s recommendations.

“The benefit of the report is that it is all-party and we would be loathe to deviate from it. Once we deviate, it becomes our problem,” said a Cabinet source.

The majority of Cabinet members back the committee recommendations. They include Katherine Zappone, Paschal Donohoe, Charlie Flanagan, Shane Ross, Regina Doherty, Simon Harris, Eoghan Murphy, and Josepha Madigan.

Super-junior minister Finian McGrath said reform is the only way to resolve cases involving rape and incest.

Other ministers, such as Paul Kehoe, Michael Creed, Heather Humphreys, and Michael Ring, are concerned over the 12-week limit, with chief whip Joe McHugh particularly vocal at Cabinet.

The 2:1 split in part explains Mr Varadkar’s hesitance over the 12-week limit, the delay in revealing his own views, and his decision to allow ministers to campaign based on their personal opinions instead of forcing them to back a specific position.

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger last night claimed that, in reality, they show Mr Varadkar is “far behind the public” and is “using” the middle ground to promote his own concerns.

TDs and senators will debate the committee recommendations next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday — but are unlikely to be given the chance to vote on the findings.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney — who was not present at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting as he was in the Middle East — is believed to have spoken with Mr Varadkar in depth about his own concerns relating to the Eighth Amendment over the new year.

He is likely to express his opinion at a special Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Monday.

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