Ireland to hold abortion referendum in May

Women march for abortion rights.
Women march for abortion rights| Hindustan Times

Debangana Ghosh

Ireland, Jan. 30: Ireland’s Government has proposed holding a referendum on whether to repeal a 35-year-old constitutional ban on abortion which will test how far attitudes have shifted in a country that was once a bastion of Roman Catholic conservatism.

Speaking at a news conference after a special cabinet meeting on the issue, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also confirmed that the minister of health is preparing legislation to allow unrestricted access to abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and later in cases of rape, incest or fatal abnormality. That legislation, which echoes recommendations delivered by an all-party parliamentary committee last month, will be put before Parliament if the country votes to repeal the constitutional ban.

Mr. Varadkar said that over 2,000 Irish women and girls were taking abortion pills each year without proper medical supervision, and that this would inevitably lead to medical tragedies.

“I don’t think we can persist with a situation where women in crisis are risking their lives for the use of unregulated medicines,” he said, “and I don’t believe the Constitution is the place for making absolute statements about medical, moral and legal issues.”

After hearing legal advice from the country’s attorney general, Mr. Varadkar and his cabinet decided to proceed with a referendum to repeal Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, known as the Eighth Amendment, which gives an unborn fetus a right to life equal to that of its mother. In practice, Irish legal authorities have interpreted this as a ban on abortion in almost all circumstances.

The referendum measure, if passed by a majority of voters, would replace that article with a new clause stating that Parliament has the power to make laws regulating abortion. Because Irish laws can be passed only by acts of Parliament, Mr. Varadkar has promised to tell voters what kind of abortion bill is proposed before a referendum is held on repealing the constitutional ban.

For the referendum to proceed, the cabinet’s decision must be approved by both houses of Ireland’s Parliament. The main political parties have all said that lawmakers in both houses will be free to vote according to their conscience rather than on party lines.

Mr. Varadkar said that his cabinet’s decision to hold a referendum was unanimous, but that there was some disagreement over the specifics of any abortion legislation if the referendum passes. His deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, is believed to be one of several party colleagues who are unhappy with the proposal to allow unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.