TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said that the government intends to hold a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment before the end of May.
The referendum will be subject to the approval of the Dáil with Varadkar saying the Cabinet agreed on the preferred timeline this evening.
While the exact wording of the referendum question that will be put to voters has not yet been decided, Varadkar said it will include a Constitutional provision enabling the Oireachtas to legislate for the issue.
The Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment had recommended a straight repeal referendum.
The committee also recommended that terminations be available without restriction up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and Cabinet has now backed this proposal.
Details of the government’s plans were announced in a press conference this evening held by Varadkar as well as Minister for Health Simon Harris and Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone.
The press conference came following a Cabinet meeting that lasted about four hours.
The government’s approach was approved by Cabinet but it is understood that Tánaiste Simon Coveney told his Cabinet colleagues he could not support the 12-week provision.
Speaking at Government Buildings this evening about his own views on the referendum, Varadkar said that he would be campaigning to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
“We know that thousands of Irish women, women from every single county in Ireland, travel abroad for abortions every year. We know that women obtain abortion pills through the post to end their pregnancies without any medical support or counselling or supervision. So we already have abortion in Ireland, but it’s unsafe, unregulated and unlawful. In my opinion we cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions,” Varadkar said.
An Taoiseach said that his own personal view on the issue had “evolved over time”.
However difficult, I believe the time has come for the people to make this decision. The question has to be a yes or no one. Do we reform our abortion laws or leave them as they are? For my part I will advocate a yes vote, my own views have evolved over time. Life experience does that.
“These cases should have been cases for the women themselves, their next of kin and their doctors, but both were decided in the courts due to the Eighth Amendment,” Vadakar said.
Doctors deciding what to do in difficult circumstances should look to clinical guidelines, not Bunreacht na hÉireann. That’s why I called for a change in the Dail in December 2014.
On the 12 weeks provision, Varadkar said that he will support legislation which paves the way for the recommendation.
“People will have to make up their own minds, based on the evidence and their own conscience. In making my decision to support it, should legislation ever come before the Dáil, I listened to the views of others, medical experts, the public, my own party, ministers and friends. And above all I’ve listened to women,” he said.
The Taoiseach also noted that the Oireachtas committee’s report outlined that, in cases of rape, forcing women to prove they were raped to secure a termination would “make them victims for a second time”.
Beyond the 12 week provision, Varadkar said abortion would only be available in “exceptional circumstances”, such as in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or a serious risk to the life of the woman.
In these such cases decisions would be based on the best medical evidence, Varadkar said.
Ultimately it will be a decision based on the wishes of the woman concerned and the best available medical evidence. Safe, legal and rare, no longer an article in our constitution but rather a personal and private matter for women and their doctors. No more X cases, no more C cases. No more Miss Ys, Miss As, Miss Bs or Miss Cs.
If we do not approve this amendment to the Constitution, there will be no change. We can’t introduce abortion in any circumstances without a Yes vote, we can’t do it in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, we can’t do it in cases of rape or incest, we can’t do it in the case of a child who becomes pregnant and doesn’t want to become a mother.
“So what we’re asking people to do is allow us to change the Constitution and the Oireachtas is enabled to make new laws. That we can’t tie the hands of a future Oireachtas. So essentially that is the difference. ”
The May referendum date has come following pressure from students groups which had urged the government to consider the circumstances of third-level students.
“Millions of our young people have not had the opportunity to vote on this issue, and arguably it affects our future generations more than any other,” Michael Kerrigan of the Union of Students of Ireland said today.
Minister for Health Simon Harris has said that both he and the Taoiseach wanted the referendum date to avoid clashing with both college exams and the Leaving Certificate exams.
Speaking at this evening’s press conference, Harris said that “the Constitution is not the place to address this aspect of women’s healthcare”.
“Change cannot happen as long as the Eighth Amendment remains in the constitution,” he said, adding that “it’s time for the people to have their say”.
Minister Zappone said that “as an independent woman” she was “full of emotion” following the government’s decision.