Minister raises doubt over chances of repealing 8th

Regina Doherty

A senior minister has cast doubt over whether the Government can succeed in liberalising Ireland’s abortion laws, triggering uncertainty about the upcoming referendum before the campaign begins.

Employment Affairs Minister Regina Doherty admitted there is a “job of work to be done” on persuading voters why they should back repeal of the Eighth Amendment and allow unrestricted access to abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy.

Her candid warning comes ahead of the Cabinet tomorrow reviewing the wording for the referendum, and amid mixed polls on the vote.

Less than 10 percentage points separate those favouring and against unrestricted terminations up to 12 weeks.

While a majority back removing the abortion ban from the Constitution by repealing its Eighth Amendment, support for allowing terminations up to 12 weeks is weaker.

A Sunday Times poll showed 43% favour the 12 weeks proposal, while 35% are against it. A Sunday Independent poll said 40% think the 12 weeks proposal was “about right”, while 33% said this “went too far”.

Ms Doherty said: “Standing right now, if nobody does anything, I don’t think this referendum will pass. We need to sell, as advocates of people who want to see the Constitution changed and the 12 week [proposal] imposed, that needs to be sold to people and the reasons why that 12 weeks figure was come at. That needs to be explained clearly to people.”

However, her officials moved hours later to reverse her stance, releasing a fresh statement on her behalf, saying: “I believe the referendum can and will pass. I, and members of the Government, will campaign for it. But we can’t be complacent, which is why I said earlier that we have a job of work to do to sell it.”

Health Minister Simon Harris also doubled down on his belief the referendum will pass. Nonetheless, a statement said he “agrees with any colleague who asserts that there is a huge amount of work to be done”.

Cabinet will tomorrow consider the referendum wording. This is expected to ask voters whether or not they approve removing the Eighth Amendment and inserting a clause enabling the Oireachtas to legislate for terminations.

It is understood the wording is more or less decided, but its publication is being held back until after a key Supreme Court judgment.

That case concerns the meaning of ‘unborn’ in the Constitution and is listed for February 22. The decision could force Government to expand the referendum wording, or assess it further.

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