Landmark ruling clears way for abortion referendum

The Government will today publish the wording of the abortion referendum after a Supreme Court ruling removed one of the final stumbling blocks to the planned May vote.

The seven-judge Supreme Court at the new courthouse in Limerick. Picture: Liam Burke

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the “first piece of the puzzle” on addressing Ireland’s abortion laws is now facing the country, as he confirmed the referendum bill will be published this afternoon.

His comments follow yesterday’s landmark ruling by the Supreme Court which said the rights enjoyed by children born in Ireland are not shared by the unborn.

The ruling — which stems from a deportation order challenge in an immigration case where it was claimed the Constitution allowed access to both parents — means there is now no roadblock to the Government proceeding with the referendum.

The decision by the court means Cabinet can meet this morning to sign-off on the referendum bill with the aim of bringing it to the Dáil this evening before a special Dáil sitting as soon as tomorrow.

The court’s 121-page judgement said there is no reason for the referendum wording to include a clause allowing the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion.

However, Government sources last night said that after examining the ruling, Attorney General Seamus Woulfe remains of the view the initial “repeal and enable legislation” wording should still be proposed in order to prevent any future constitutional challenge.

The Supreme Court ruling had been under the public spotlight in recent days because Dáil time is short in the coming weeks due to breaks for St Patrick’s Day and Easter. The Government was aware that unless the stalled referendum bill was published by the end of the month, a May 25 referendum date would be in doubt.

While this issue has now been largely resolved, today’s referendum bill will not contain an exact referendum date as this cannot be agreed until the bill is passed by both the Dáil and Seanad.

A Referendum Commission must also be formed to start raising public awareness about the referendum and how to vote, and disseminating impartial material about the wording and its implications.

A chairperson is to be appointed within days and will be nominated by the chief justice from former Supreme Court judges or from former or sitting members of the High Court. Unless a woman is appointed chairperson, the commission will be an all-male grouping.

The referendum bill will be published alongside a “policy paper” on the 12-week abortion legislation should the referendum pass.

The 12-week policy paper will be published tomorrow and include:

  • A cooling off period, which is 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 which will allow GPs to decline to provide an abortion, provided they give the person seeking it a list of other GPs in the nearby 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;
  • And decriminalising abortion for women seeking abortions, although doctors who perform abortions outside of the legal stipulations can still be prosecuted.

The unanimous Supreme Court decision was fast-tracked because of the possible implications for the referendum. Pro-life campaigners said it was rushed. It received a firm welcome by pro-choice advocates.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar appealed for “respectful debate”.


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