Cabinet agrees to summer vote on replacing Eighth

Voters to be asked to replace Eighth Amendment with provision for Oireachtas to legislate

The Cabinet on Monday night agreed to propose a referendum on abortion to take place in early summer, which will seek to replace the Eighth Amendment with a new constitutional provision. Video: Merrion Street

The Cabinet on Monday night agreed to propose a referendum on abortion to take place in early summer, which will seek to replace the Eighth Amendment with a new constitutional provision specifically enabling the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion.

Ministers agreed the proposal to “repeal and replace” at a lengthy meeting at Government Buildings. Cabinet sources said the decision was unanimous.

If passed, the new constitutional article would state that the Oireachtas may provide for the termination of pregnancy in accordance with law.

The Government will then introduce legislation in accordance with the report of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, allowing for abortion on request up to 12 weeks.


After 12 weeks, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Monday night, abortion would be allowed only “in exceptional circumstances” where there was a serious risk to the life or health of the woman or where there was a fatal foetal abnormality.

Speaking after the Cabinet meeting, the Taoiseach said the Government would publish a summary of the Attorney General’s advice on Tuesday.

The Government’s decision had been well-flagged in advance but was a necessary step before a referendum Bill could be drafted, which will happen over the coming weeks. Once that Bill is introduced to the Dáil, expected to be in March, the Government will set up a Referendum Commission to oversee the campaign.

Comfortable majorities

The Oireachtas will now be asked to approve the holding of a referendum by passing the referendum Bill providing for the vote to take place. However, a survey by The Irish Times in recent weeks has demonstrated there are comfortable majorities in both houses for a referendum.

Abortion vote: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Cabinet have agreed to a referendum on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution

It means that for the first time in 16 years, the Government will propose a change to the constitutional ban on abortion. However, unlike in 2002, and a decade earlier in 1992, voters will be asked to overturn the ban and so pave the way to make abortion widely available in Ireland for the first time.

The move follows recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly and an Oireachtas committee last year that Ireland’s abortion laws be substantially liberalised, and comes after years of campaigning by pro-choice groups. However, the move is likely to be strongly resisted by anti-abortion groups.

Speaking at Government Buildings after a lengthy Cabinet meeting, Mr Varadkar said that he wanted to see abortion made "safe, legal and rare" in Ireland. Abortion already existed in Ireland, he said, but it was unsafe, unregulated and illegal.

He acknowledged that it was not possible to give people “absolute certainty” on what would follow a repeal of the Eighth Amendment, as the Government did not have a majority in the Dáil.

Concern expressed

The Irish Times understands that a number of Cabinet Ministers expressed concern about whether legislation to allow for terminations up to 12 weeks would pass through the Dáil.

Ministers including Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed and Minister of State with responsibility for Defence Paul Kehoe questioned how the Government could address these concerns during a referendum campaign.

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, who supports repeal and allowing for abortions up to 12 weeks, told the meeting it would not be easy for the proposals to get through the Houses of the Oireachtas, even if the referendum is successful.

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten was not able to attend.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney told the meeting he would support the repeal of the Eighth Amendment but would not support unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

“The State has a responsibility towards an unborn child, and that goes for pre-12 weeks and post-12 weeks. There is a minimum level of protection that the State should be providing in law,” Mr Coveney said tonight.

While Ministers agreed to the Cabinet decisions tonight, they will not be bound to vote for them in the Dáil.

Mr Varadkar said passing the referendum would mean that “Ireland had come of age” and that we no longer exported our problems.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times