The no side of the Eighth Amendment referendum was plunged into disarray last night after a leading member of the campaign pulled out of a televised debate at the last minute.

Love Both key spokeswoman Cora Sherlock withdrew from RTÉ’s Prime Time debate yesterday afternoon, despite agreeing to take part in the debate against Health Minister Simon Harris last Thursday.

The no side last night put forward Maria Steen of the Iona Institute as a substitute after she put in a strong performance in last week’s Claire Byrne Live debate. However, RTÉ rejected this suggested replacement because she had taken part in the first televised discussion.

It is understood RTÉ also strongly disagreed with any attempt to dictate the guests selected on either side.

In another development late last night, Ms Steen contacted TV3 to say she was pulling out of tonight’s televised debate.

In the end, RTÉ was forced to hold the debate with just two male podium speakers — Mr Harris and Sinn Féin TD Peadar Toibín.

Consultant obstetrician Mary Higgins, who had been due to join Mr Harris on stage in arguing to repeal the Eighth Amendment, was placed in the audience.

This debate had been sought for a number of weeks by Ms Sherlock, who has repeatedly referenced a cut-out poster of Mr Harris the Love Both campaign brought to all of its events over the past month to underline the Health Minister’s alleged failure to engage in debate. Mr Harris consistently said he is happy to speak with anyone about the referendum.

In the debate, Mr Harris said the referendum is about introducing a “balance of rights” to protect women.

Mr Toibín said the issue is about “a mother and her unborn child”, adding that repealing the Eighth would allow “one individual take the life of another individual”. He said the proposals drawn up by Government are “breathtakingly extreme”.

Mr Harris replied that the no side have had 35 years to come up with alternatives to deal with difficult cases but they have failed to do so.

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