‘Foolish’ to expect Oireachtas to rework 12-week abortion proposal

Labour leader Brendan Howlin warns Coveney against ‘starting afresh’

Eighth Amendment: Simon Coveney “may not like the outcome of the proposal, but he does have ownership of it”, Brendan Howlin said. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Eighth Amendment: Simon Coveney “may not like the outcome of the proposal, but he does have ownership of it”, Brendan Howlin said. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Any suggestion that the Dáil and Seanad could devise an alternative abortion regime to that proposed by the Oireachtas committee on the issue is “foolish”, the leader of the Labour Party, Brendan Howlin, has said.

Mr Howlin made his comments after a number of recent opinion polls showed that although most people are in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bans abortion in almost all circumstances, opinion is more evenly divided on the committee’s proposals.

The Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution recommended that abortion be allowed without restriction up to the 12th week of pregnancy, and this will also be proposed by the Government in legislation to be published in the weeks ahead.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the Government will put the legislation before the Oireachtas if the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment and to allow TDs and Senators to allow for abortion is passed. The draft heads of the Bill to provide for a referendum on abortion are to be considered by the Cabinet today.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have granted a free vote on the issue, however, and Tánaiste Simon Coveney is the most senior politician to say that, although he backs repeal, he is unwilling to support the 12-week proposal.

If the referendum is passed, the Tánaiste has said, there will be a full debate, starting with the Oireachtas committee’s proposal, on how the Dáil and Seanad will legislate for abortion.

Cabinet “taken out of equation”

“It is difficult to imagine how the Houses of the Oireachtas could unite around an alternative proposal to that of the all-party committee, considering the extent and the nature of the deliberations that have taken place thus far,” Mr Howlin told The Irish Times. “The idea that the Tánaiste could seek, either in Cabinet or in the Dáil, to modify the proposal would be tantamount to starting afresh. That would be impossible.”

The Wexford TD also argued that, as Mr Varadkar had allowed his Ministers a free vote, the Cabinet, as a unit, had been “taken out of the equation”.

He said Mr Coveney has consistently supported the way the abortion issue has been dealt with in recent years, from the Citizens’ Assembly to the Oireachtas committee. “He may not like the outcome of the proposal, but he does have ownership of it,” Mr Howlin said, adding that Labour will “not support any serious modification” of the 12-week proposal.

“The danger is that lack of clarity will be used to obscure the debate,” Mr Howlin said; the Oireachtas committee offers “the only practicable way of affording the protections that Irish women deserve in their own country”.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Coveney said: “I, like everybody else, will work in a constructive and progressive way to get the balance of the legislation right, but the focus, first and foremost for me, is in encouraging people to vote Yes to change the Constitution, so we can protect women in the appropriate way.”

The Pro-Life Campaign group claimed that Mr Coveney’s comments in favour of repeal are “disappointing and not supported by the facts”.

“He knows only too well that the latest official report on safety in pregnancy places Ireland in a leading position in the world, and that Ireland is safer for women in pregnancy than countries like England and the USA, which allow abortion on demand,” said a spokeswoman, Dr Ruth Cullen.

“It is very clear that the Government is rattled by recent opinion polls showing a drop in support for repeal, and it is starting to look like they are prepared to say almost anything to get their proposal for wide-ranging abortion over the line.”