Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone has been elected chairwoman of the Oireachtas abortion committee, which met for the first time on Wednesday in private.
The committee will meet again in two weeks. Ms Noone was the only nominee.
Fine Gael’s Senator Jerry Buttimer had been tipped to become chairman, partly because he led the Oireachtas committee that held hearings on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill four years ago.
On Wednesday morning he said he would have “enjoyed the challenge” but said he was “delighted for Senator Noone and wished her well.
The TDs and senators who are tasked with proposing changes to Ireland's abortion ban meet for the first time today as Minister for Health Simon Harris said that the country must "prepare itself" for a referendum next year.
The committee is considered to have a majority in favour of liberalising to some degree the State’s strict abortion laws.
The Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution is not expected to hold public sessions until September, however, so a final report to Government may not happen until Christmas.
Mr Harris said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had made clear his intention to hold a referendum next year. "It's very important that this country prepares itself to hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment in 2018."
Members who are described as "pro-choice" are Senator Noone and Kate O'Connell TD of Fine Gael; Sinn Féin's Louise O'Reilly and Senator Paul Gavan; Labour's Jan O'Sullivan; Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats; Clare Daly of Independents 4 Change; Independent Senator Lynn Ruane of the Civil Engagement Group and Solidarity's Ruth Coppinger.
FG TD Peter Fitzpatrick, Independents TD Mattie McGrath and Senator Rónán Mullen are self-described "pro-life", while Fianna Fáil's Anne Rabbitte and James Brown, along with Fine Gael TD Hildegarde Naughton hold conservative views.
Fianna Fáil's Lisa Chambers and Billy Kelleher are believed to be more liberal, while Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O'Brien has said that he is "not in favour of abortion" but would leave his personal views "at the gate".
The Oireachtas committee will consider the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly, which surprised many in Leinster House by backing the wide availability of abortion, including for economic reasons.
“I expect it will get on with its job and my Department will prepare to deal with recommendations that arise from that committee,” said Mr Harris, who has been given charge of the issue by the Taoiseach.
Earlier this month, the Taoiseach agreed to Minister of State Katherine Zappone’s request to accelerate referendum preparations and to have a “parallel process” to run alongside the committee.
This would examine possible referendum wordings, and the legislative options outlining the circumstances in which abortion could be allowed. The Attorney General will assist the committee, Mr Varadkar decided.
How the commitee breaks down:
Fine Gael (6):
Senator Jerry Buttimer
Senator Catherine Noone
Fianna Fáil (5):
Senator Ned O’Sullivan
Sinn Féin (3):
Senator Paul Gavan
Social Democrats/Green Party group (1):
Solidarity/People Before Profit (1):
TD Mattie McGrath
Senator Ronan Mullen
Senator Lynn Ruane, Civil Engagement Group