Proposed abortion law changes would mark ‘quantum leap’

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The proposed changes to Ireland’s abortion laws mark a quantum leap from being one of the most restrictive regimes in the world when it comes to the termination of pregnancy, Health Minister Simon Harris has said.

Mr Harris told the Dail that the Irish Government is proposing to permit terminations up to 12 weeks of pregnancy without specific indication.

He is also proposing to introduce a time period which would be required to elapse between the assessment by a medical practitioner and an abortion being carried out.

A referendum on the country’s laws is expected to take place at the end of May.

The minister made the comments after the bill to hold a referendum on abortion was introduced in the Dail. It follows a decision by government ministers at Cabinet on Thursday to formally approve the wording of the draft legislation.

Currently, terminations are only allowed in the Irish Republic 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.

Campaigners are seeking to liberalise the regime to allow for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.

If the referendum is given the go-ahead by parliament citizens, will be asked whether they want to remove the Eighth Amendment, which gives equal right to life to the mother and the unborn, and replace it with wording that would allow politicians to set Ireland’s abortion laws in the future.

The exact wording would be: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

Mr Harris told the Dail he was mindful of the impact of the Eighth Amendment since it was inserted 35 years ago.

“If this Oireachtas facilitates a referendum, I will be casting my ballot for repeal and asking others to do the same because I cannot live any longer with a law that sees a woman or a girl who has been brutally raped forced to continue her pregnancy or travel to another country if she cannot,” he said.

Mr Harris said he was looking into introducing a system of free contraception in an effort to reduce pregnancies.

In line with the parliamentary committee’s recommendation, the bill proposes to permit termination up to 12 weeks of pregnancy without specific indication.

“Contrary to some assertions, such provision would not make Ireland an outlier internationally,” Mr Harris said.

“But I accept they represent a quantum leap from our position on the spectrum today where we have one of the most restrictive regimes in relation to termination and I think are pegged somewhere in and around where Saudi Arabia is on the issue.”

Mr Harris said this brief period of time would allow women to consider of all of the options before making an informed decision.

Politicians debated the draft legislation in the Dail for five hours on Friday.

Fianna Fail’s health spokesperson Billy Kelleher said that Irish women were being treated as second class citizens and it could no longer continue.

“The minute an Irish woman becomes pregnant, she no longer has destiny over her own health care,” Mr Kelleher said.

He added: “The first thing we have to do, if we are to bring about change, is to repeal Article 40.3.3.”

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said she recognised the 12-week proposal was challenging for some people, as it represented a marked departure in practice.

But she said the courts would still feature as all legislation that comes through parliament is subject to review of the courts.

“Anyone who argues that the courts have been written out of the scenario, that this is some kind of carte blanche for untrustworthy politicians, is wilfully misleading public opinion,” the leader said.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath said: “The manner in which the Government has dealt with this amendment bill has been nothing short of disgraceful.

“There’s been no rationale offered to why the entire process has had to lead to a mad rush towards May 25 as the date of the proposed referendum that will strip unborn children of all constitutional protection if the Eighth is removed.”

Mr McGrath added that the opposition of GPs would make post-referendum situation unworkable if the referendum was passed.

Labour’s Joan Burton said she hoped the debate would be respectful and produce a good outcome for the people of Ireland.

“We the women of Ireland inherited a Republic of misogyny, a Republic of cruelty, and an Oireachtas, a Dail and Seanad that has been, and in many cases still is, a cold place for women and girls.”

“The Labour Party was very clear in 1983 that the Eighth Amendment was the wrong amendment for our Constitution and for Ireland, for the people of Ireland and particularly for the women of Ireland.

“Instead of doctors and midwives providing the best of maternal care to women, instead what we have had is decisions about women’s care moving to the hands of lawyers and courts.”

A Referendum Commission was formally established by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy on Friday. It will explain the subject matter to the public, create awareness of the referendum and encourage citizens to vote.

The debate on the controversial issue is due to resume after the St Patrick’s Day week-long break on March 20.

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