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Minister establishes Referendum Commission for Eighth Amendment referendum

Earlier, Simon Harris outlined details of a policy paper on the proposed abortion legislation.

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THE HOUSING, PLANNING and local government minister Eoghan Murphy has ordered that a Referendum Commission be established up for the upcoming Eighth Amendment referendum.

Eoghan Murphy announced today that he had made the order under the the Referendum Act 1998.

The main function of the commission is to prepare, publish and distribute to the electorate statements containing a general explanation of the subject matter of the referendum proposal, to promote awareness of the referendum and to encourage the electorate to vote.

It will also consider and rule on applications from bodies or groups for declaration as approved bodies who may appoint agents at the referendum to be present at polling stations and at the counting of votes.

The Chief Justice has nominated the Hon. Ms Justice Isobel Kennedy to act as Chairperson to the Commission.

The other members of the Commission are:

  • The Comptroller and Auditor General (Mr Seamus McCarthy)
  • The Ombudsman (Mr Peter Tyndall)
  • The Clerk of the Dáil (Mr Peter Finnegan)
  • The Clerk of the Seanad (Mr Martin Groves)

Policy paper

Earlier, health minister Simon Harris outlined the details of the policy paper that outlines how the government intends to legislate for abortion.

Yesterday, the Cabinet approved the policy paper, which includes over 20 clauses or key points, that will be included in the abortion legislation (should a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment be passed).

The legislation is not due to be published until the end of March.

Along with the policy paper approval, the wording that will replace the Eighth Amendment in the event that a vote to repeal it is passed was also approved.

The referendum bill, which was also rubber-stamped yesterday, has now been published, and is being debated in the Dáil today.

Addressing the House today, Harris said:

We are here because of the courage of women like Amanda Mellet and Siobhán Whelan, and so many others, who publicly relived the worst moments of their lives to make us to think about why change is needed in this country.
We stand here knowing the tragedy which befell Savita Halappanavar and her family. We remember you, Savita. We remember Miss X. We remember A, B, C & D. We remember Miss Y. We remember Miss P.
I cannot live with that. I cannot ignore that. If this Oireachtas facilitates a referendum I will be casting my ballot for repeal, and asking others to do the same, because I cannot live any longer with a law that sees a woman or girl who has been brutally raped forced to continue a pregnancy or travel to another country if she cannot.

The wording 

Taking TDs through the bill, he said it included two sections and a schedule. The wording of the proposed constitutional amendment is as follows:

Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy

The short policy paper, which the minister published today affirms the following:

  • That termination of pregnancy on the grounds of a risk to the health (which would include risk to the life) of a pregnant woman would be provided for in the General Scheme.
  • That there will be distinction between a risk to the physical or mental health of a woman.
  • That two medical practitioners will be required to assess access to termination of pregnancy on the grounds of a risk to the health of a pregnant woman.
  • One medical practitioner can permit to terminate a pregnancy where an emergency risk to health arises.
  • That termination of pregnancy on the grounds of a fetal condition which is likely to lead to death before or shortly after birth would be provided for
  • That two medical practitioners would be required to enable access to termination of pregnancy on the grounds of a fetal condition which is likely to lead to death before or shortly after birth.
  • That termination of pregnancy up to 12 weeks of pregnancy without specific indication will be permitted
  • That a time period would be required to elapse between the initial assessment by a medical practitioner and the a termination of pregnancy being carried out.
  • That termination of pregnancy for a fetal condition likely to lead to death before or shortly after birth or for maternal health should not have a gestational limit in the General Scheme.
  • That the definition of appropriate medical practitioners in the legislation would include all registered medical practitioners on the Medical Council register.
  • The legislation will require that a termination of pregnancy should be certified by the appropriate medical practitioner(s) in all cases.
  • The General Scheme will require that the termination of pregnancy be notified to the Minister for Health by the appropriate medical practitioner.
  • The law will include provision for a formal review process for a woman in certain defined circumstances. It is noted that Section 10 of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, 2013 established a formal mechanism whereby a woman can seek a review of the clinical assessment made by the original treating medical practitioner or team where their assessment is that the woman does not require a termination, or when the woman has been unable to obtain an opinion in this regard.
  • Conscientious objection in line with that provided for in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, 2013 will be allowed so as to provide a right to conscientious objection for medical and nursing personnel.
  • A clause confirming that nothing in the legislation would limit or interfere with the right to travel or to information will be included.
  • That termination of pregnancy would be lawful in the circumstances set out in the grounds provided for in the new legislation, but it will retain the offence of intentional destruction of the unborn in defined circumstances.
  • A woman who procures or seeks to procure a termination of pregnancy for herself would not be guilty of an offence.
  • That the Minister for Health will publish an annual report of terminations of pregnancy in the preceding year
  • The HSE must also be prepared to report each year of reviews undertaken in the preceding year in defined circumstances, and will include the number of reviews carried out and the outcomes of the reviews. These reports will be submitted to the Minister for Health for publication.
  • That provision for consent similar to that contained in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, 2013 would be provided in the new legislation.
  • That the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, 2013 would be repealed in full.

“Women in these awful, heartbreaking situations will consider different options, and many will choose to continue with the pregnancy. But others may not. In these cases, the people best placed to make such a decision are the woman and her doctors, and I trust them to do so,” said Harris on fatal foetal abnormality pregnancies.

Abortion up to 12 weeks 

In line with the all-party Oireachtas Committee recommendation, termination up to 12 weeks of pregnancy will be permitted without specific indication.

“But I am proposing to introduce a time period that is required to elapse between the assessment by a medical practitioner and the procedure being carried out,” said Harris.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said today that the proposed “consideration period” will be less than five days.

Any woman requesting an abortion will have first visit her GP or practitioner. She will then have to wait to consider her decision until she is permitted to have a termination.

When asked about the time period on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show today, the Taoiseach said : “I don’t think it will be five days I think it will be shorter than that.”

The proposed legislation is not without restriction, Harris said.

I believe it is reasonable that there would be a brief period of time after the woman has had her first consultation with her doctor for all the options to be considered, to allow informed consent. This is not an unusual medical principle.

Only medical practitioners on the Medical Council’s register would be permitted to assess and, where appropriate, carry out the procedure, clarified the minister.

Doctors

Minister Harris said doctors are best placed to make assessments and decisions on how to best proceed based on each individual clinical situation.

“I want to say the spectre of late or full term abortions is not the reality. It’s important to be clear and truthful that in cases where the foetus is viable early delivery and the full range of neonatal care are the reality,” he said.

Offences 

While termination of pregnancy would be lawful in the circumstances set out, it is proposed to retain the offence of intentional destruction of the unborn in defined circumstances.

“Abortion will be unlawful outside of these defined circumstances,” he said.

However, a woman who procures or seeks to procure a termination of pregnancy for herself would not be guilty of an offence.

“We should not seek to criminalise women in these situations.”

Harris said denying reality has become an Irish “bad habit”.

He asked the politicians in the Dáil today “sitting in their comfortable brown leather chairs” to think of the women travelling to the UK today for an abortion, and to think of the women sitting in their bedrooms today taking an abortion bill.

He concluded by commending the bill to the House.

You can watch a livestream of proceedings on TheJournal.ie Facebook page.

Read: Varadkar to thank Choctaw Nation for support during Famine>

Read: Government releases wording of what will replace the Eighth Amendment if referendum passes>

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