10:21, March 08 419 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-08 10:21:04
Abortion in Northern Ireland  Ireland's government approves bill paving way for abortion referendum

The Irish government has finalised the wording of a national referendum on abortion that if passed would overturn a constitutional ban in place since the 1980s.

Ministers formally approved a bill that paves the way for a referendum on abolishing the eighth amendment – the clause inserted into the constitution in 1983 that gives foetuses and women equal right to life.

If Ireland votes in favour of repealing the amendment, the government has also committed to introducing legislation permitting unrestricted abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Currently, terminations are only allowed when the life of the mother is at risk, including from suicide, and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is 14 years in prison.

The referendum bill, agreed by the cabinet in Dublin on Thursday, International Women’s Day, will be debated in parliament over the next 24 hours, and full details will be published on Friday. Ireland’s Fine Gael-led minority government believes there is enough cross-party support for the bill to become law and allow for the creation of a referendum commission.

The commission will then publish a report at the end of March setting out the exact wording of the referendum, which is intended to be held on 25 May.

Ailbhe Smyth, from the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment, told the Guardian she was relieved that the intended date for the vote had not changed. “If it was to slip to the last week in May this would have an impact on the student vote in the referendum. Many students had assumed it would take place on the 25 May and made plans to leave the state in the last week of May. Many would already have booked flights to summer jobs in Britain, the US and further afield by the end of May and could have missed out on voting on an issue which is most vital to their generation.”

Extra time has been granted to keep the Irish parliament open on Friday to allow for extended debate on the referendum proposals. The vote will be a free one and not subject to the party whip.

A supreme court judgment on Wednesday cleared the way for the government to introduce the bill. Judges had overturned an earlier judgment in the high court, which said the unborn had a number of constitutional rights, ruling that the only right the unborn were entitled to at the moment was the right to life under eighth amendment.

Speaking after the cabinet met on Thursday, the Irish health minister, Simon Harris, said that if the referendum did not pass, Ireland would be unable “to address issues in relation to women who have had fatal foetal abnormalities in their pregnancy, in relation to women who have been raped and abused in this country”. A no vote would mean nothing could be done for the Irish women who have to travel to the UK for abortions, he added.

Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said the referendum was about asking citizens to allow women to make decisions for themselves. “It’s about trusting women to decide, in the early weeks of their pregnancy, what’s right for them and their families. And it’s about trusting our doctors to decide when continuing with a pregnancy is a risk to the life or health of a woman,” Varadkar said.

Sara Monaghan, of the Abortion Rights Campaign, said repealing the eighth amendment was “the next logical step in Ireland’s move to a more equal society”. The referendum campaign would not “be won in Dublin, it will be fought in little towns across Ireland by a network of people on the ground”.

Monaghan added: “In rural areas there is still a lot of silence around this issue and for some people the only voice they hear comes from the pulpit. We want to provide an alternative. There is a huge middle ground of people, who are open to conversations on the doorstep, and we will going door-to-door, night after night.”

She claimed a generational divide on the issue was not as entrenched as people imagined. “There are lots of older women for whom the dark history of Ireland is very real. They, or their sisters or neighbours, have been unable to have abortions. Many want to see a better future for their daughters or granddaughters.”

The anti-abortion Pro Life campaign warned that the supreme court decision on Wednesday showed that only by voting to maintain the eighth amendment could Irish people prevent “abortion on demand” in Ireland.

“The supreme court’s judgment makes it all the more necessary to oppose the government’s proposal to introduce abortion on demand,” said William Binchy, legal adviser to Pro Life. “The court has made it clear that unborn babies, up to birth, would have no constitutional protection against the legislation that the government intends to introduce.”