Assembly vote puts abortion issue back in politicians’ hands

Oireachtas members unlikely to be as liberal in their views as Citizens’ Assembly

Members of the Citizens’ Assembly have recommended that abortion should be permitted in the State in a wide range of circumstances.

 

If the decision of the Citizens’ Assembly to support a referendum to replace rather than repeal the Eighth Amendment was not a surprise, its findings yesterday on how liberal Ireland’s abortion regime should be certainly were.

On an almost two to one margin, it voted that abortion should be available in Ireland without restriction. Of the 64 per cent who voted to allow abortion with “no restrictions as to reason”, 48 per cent chose to allow it up to 12 weeks, and 44 per cent chose to allow it up to 22 weeks. The remaining 8 per cent wanted no restrictions placed on gestational age.

It was one of a number of votes that showed the assembly wanted abortion rights decisively liberalised.

By also voting that the Eight Amendment should be replaced “with a constitutional provision that explicitly authorises the Oireachtas to legislate to address termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn, and any rights of the pregnant woman”, the Assembly strongly handed responsibility back to the politicians.

There will be a referendum, possibly next year, but the Oireachtas has serious work to do before then to sketch out what legislation it will enact in the event of the referendum on replacing the Eighth Amendment being passed.

While Government chief whip Regina Doherty said yesterday – before some of the deliberations of the assembly had been concluded – that it would be “unwise” for the Oireachtas to discount its findings, it is extremely difficult to envisage the Dáil being as liberal in its views.

A matter for the Dáil

The assembly will send its report to the Oireachtas by June, and a special committee will then consider what can be done. The committee will issue a report, and it will then be a matter for the Government and the Dáil to recommend any constitutional change.

While those who will be centrally involved in formulating the position of the Oireachtas and the Government were still digesting the assembly’s findings last night, there was a shared opinion that significant restrictions on any future abortion regime will have to be outlined before any referendum.

“I don’t think the public will buy anything without restrictions,” said one Fianna Fáil TD, who also suggested that the heads of a bill outlining a future approach on abortion will likely be published before people vote.

“There will be a proposal with restrictions and there will be a referendum and it will get through the Dáil – and it will lose,” said a Fine Gael backbencher.

Both parties will have a free vote on the issue in the Dáil – and presumably on the Oireachtas committee – so the views of individual TDs and Senators will take on even more importance.

The assembly has created the space for the next stage of the debate.

“They put it up to the Dáil and it shows society [to be] far more modern and educated and have a live-and-let-live attitude,” said a senior Fianna Fáil figure.

“Change is needed and society is ready.”

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