Plan to allow Oireachtas to decide abortion legislation

A referendum proposal, repealing the Eighth Amendment which prohibits abortion, and instead allowing the Oireachtas to decide future laws, is expected to be agreed at Cabinet.

Follow-up legislation to allow for terminations unrestricted in pregnancies up to 12 weeks is also expected to be backed by a majority of Cabinet members at the special meeting this evening.

Health Minister Simon Harris will bring the two proposals before his colleagues, as well as an intention to put the ‘repeal and replace’ vote before the people by the end of May.

There is no intention to publish the legal advice on the referendum and general scheme of the abortion legislation from Attorney General Séamus Woulfe, who will also brief Cabinet. Opposition leaders are expected to be briefed on it this week. Nonetheless, both Fianna Fáil and the Social Democrats called for the advice to be published.

At least eight Cabinet members, as well as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, support repeal and allowing abortion in Ireland. Mr Varadkar will make his position public after tonight’s meeting, having already told the BBC last Friday that he favoured liberalising the laws.

Government sources accept the ‘repeal and replace’ option — enabling the Oireachtas to decide — will leave the way open for any court challenges.

“Citizens have the right to go to court,” said a senior Cabinet source.

The 1983 amendment equating the life of the unborn with its mother was agreed to bring legal certainty, said the source, but this was not the result.

Mr Harris will bring three issues to Cabinet, including the formal permission to hold a referendum, his approach on the wording of the vote, and a request to draft a general scheme for follow-up legislation on abortion if voters support repeal.

The referendum legislation is likely to be ready by early March, while draft follow-up legislation should be agreed in April.

However, ahead of the meeting, Government sources said there could be differences on the Oireachtas Committee recommendations to allow for unrestricted abortions up to 12 weeks.

Government sources also conceded last night that, if the Eighth Amendment is repealed, it could be “many months” before any follow-up legislation is agreed by the Dáil.

However, the Government is confident the numbers are there to support the Oireachtas Committee recommendations, with the eventual support of many in Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour, the Greens, the Social Democrats, and several Independents when the legislation comes before the Dáil.

Two polls in recent days indicated that a majority of voters support constitutional change.

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