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Politicians are about to get down to the business of scoping out an abortion referendum

The Committee on the Eighth Amendment meets formally for the first time this week.

A pro-choice demonstration outside Leinster House earlier this year.
A pro-choice demonstration outside Leinster House earlier this year.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

IN APRIL OF this year, the Citizens’ Assembly voted to recommend radical changes to Ireland’s abortion regime.

Crucially, they voted to replace or amend the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which, except in very limited cases, effectively bans abortion in Ireland.

In its place, the assembly’s members recommended that the constitution makes it clear that Ireland’s abortion regime should be decided by legislation.

In other words, the laws that are passed through the Oireachtas.

What this means is that the assembly members said it was the job of Ireland’s elected representatives to decide our abortion laws.

From Wednesday, politicians will set about doing just that and they’ve been set a tight timeframe in which to do it.

The committee has until Christmas to complete its work and deliver a report to the Oireachtas.

With a tentative June/July date for a referendum, it’s likely that the government will then have to publish the proposed wording of the referendum early next year.

The Oireachtas committee is duty-bound to consider the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly, so while any such proposals for Ireland’s abortion regime may be up in the air, it’s inconceivable that no referendum will be required.

Changing the constitution, as the assembly recommended, would require a referendum.

The committee has already elected its chair, Senator Catherine Noone, and Wednesday’s private meeting will finalise how the committee will undertake its task.

The first public meeting on 20 September will feature Justice Mary Laffoy, who was the chair of the Citizens’ Assembly.

A decision has already been taken to break the committee’s work plan into three separate parts.

The first module will be legally focused. It will look at the assembly’s recommendation that the Eighth Amendment be replaced or amended.

It will hear from constitutional experts from a number of Irish universities and will also hear specific evidence in relation to a number of issues raised during the Citizens’ Assembly.

The evidence Brian Murray gave to the Citizens’ Assembly will be a particular focus in the early parts of the committee.

His opinion on the scenarios that could occur if the Eighth Amendment was repealed or amended was cited by some assembly members as being potentially crucial in the second vote taken by the assembly.

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ballot 2 Source: CitizensAssembly.ie

The committee’s first module will also look at constitutional change in relation to Ireland’s compliance, or lack thereof, with human rights legislation.

The UN Human Rights Committee has previously found that Ireland’s law prohibiting and criminalising abortion has violated the human rights of a woman.

Term limits 

The second module of the committee will focus on the assembly’s recommendations on the circumstances where the termination of pregnancy should be lawful and the gestational term limits that should apply.

The assembly’s recommendations in this regard were detailed. Among their recommendations was that a termination should be legal without restriction up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

In cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where the child is likely to die shortly before, or after, birth, it recommended a termination be permitted during any period of the pregnancy.

No formal invitations have been sent to people asking them to speak before the committee yet on these issues but some experts who gave evidence before the Citizens’ Assembly have been contacted about their potential appearance.

It’s not envisaged at this point that interest groups from either side will give evidence to the committee. The groups spoke to the Citizens’ Assembly during the latter stages of its process.

The committee is made up of 22 Oireachtas members from the Dáil and Seanad.

Read: HSE removes pro-life sticker from hospital waiting room following complaints >

Read: Pro-life abortion billboard ‘unlikely to mislead readers’ says ad watchdog >

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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