Ireland's government approves abortion referendum bill

Henry McDonald in Dublin and Harriet Sherwood
If Ireland backs repeal, the government has said it will introduce legislation permitting unrestricted abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

The Irish government has agreed the wording of a national referendum on abortion to be held by the end of May which could radically transform the lives of thousands of women and signal a further loosening of the grip of the Catholic church.

The cabinet, meeting on International Women’s Day, approved a bill on Thursday allowing the long-anticipated referendum to go ahead.

Voters will be asked if they want to repeal article 40.3.3 – known as the eighth amendment – which since 1983 has given unborn foetuses and pregnant women an equal right to life, effectively enshrining a ban on abortion in the country’s constitution.

If Ireland votes in favour of repeal, the government has said it will introduce 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, and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is 14 years in prison.

Since 1983, an estimated 170,000 women have left Ireland to have terminations, and up to 2,000 women each year illegally take the abortion pill, accessed online.

The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said: “This referendum is about asking our citizens to allow women to make major 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.

“Above all it’s about trusting Irish people to consider this matter in depth, with compassion and empathy, as I know they will.”

Katherine Zappone, the minister for children, said there was no more significant way of marking International Women’s Day than by agreeing the bill. “There is now a determination to get this issue before the voters as quickly as possible so that all can have their say,” she added.

The bill will be debated in parliament over the next 24 hours, and full details will be published on Friday. 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 not be subject to party whip.

Ireland’s Fine Gael-led minority government believes there is enough cross-party support for the bill to become law. If passed, a referendum commission will be established, which will publish a report at the end of March setting out the exact wording of the referendum proposition.

Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

The way for the government to introduce the bill was cleared on Wednesday by a supreme court ruling. Judges overturned an earlier high court judgment saying the unborn had constitutional rights beyond the right to life enshrined in the eighth amendment.

Speaking after the cabinet meeting on Thursday, Simon Harris, the health minister, 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.

Thursday’s announcement will galvanise pro-repeal organisations in Ireland, which have already been actively campaigning for months.

Ailbhe Smyth of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment said: “This is a historic and momentous day for Ireland, and for the women of Ireland in particular. It has been a very long time coming.

“Today is a significant milestone for the tens of thousands of supporters who have been campaigning for decades to remove the eighth from the constitution for once and for all. We need abortion care that is safe and regulated, in line with best medical practice, and today brings us a crucial step forward in trying to achieve this important goal.”

Sarah Monaghan of the Abortion Rights Campaign said the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment “won’t be won in Dublin, it will be fought in little towns across Ireland by a network of people on the ground”.

She 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.”

Repeal would be “the next logical step in Ireland’s move to a more equal society”, said Monaghan, adding that 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.”

map of abortion law

The anti-abortion Pro Life campaign warned that Wednesday’s supreme court decision 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, the campaign’s legal adviser.

“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.”

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