Government to seek limits on future abortion reform

Coalition promises extra safeguards following dismissal of Simon Coveney proposal

The Government has insisted it will introduce additional safeguards ‘above and beyond’ the normal legislative process to minimise the possibility of future changes to abortion laws.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

The Government has insisted it will introduce additional safeguards ‘above and beyond’ the normal legislative process to minimise the possibility of future changes to abortion laws. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The Government has insisted it will introduce additional safeguards “above and beyond” the normal legislative process to minimise the possibility of future changes to abortion laws.

The exact nature of the safeguards have yet to be decided but may require the establishment of an Oireachtas committee or a citizens’ assembly.

The decision follows a public rebuke of Tánaiste Simon Coveney’s calls for a two-third majority lock on any future abortion legislation.

On Tuesday night, the Cabinet agreed the general scheme of legislation to replace the Eighth Amendment, in the event Article 40.3.3 is removed from the Constitution.

It agreed to advance a regime where abortion would be accessible within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and in the cases when a mother’s life is at risk or where there may be a risk of serious harm to the health of a woman.

The legislation also commits to the decriminalisation of women who procure an abortion and to allow for terminations when a woman receives a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality.

At the Cabinet meeting, Ministers agreed that a proposition by the Tánaiste to introduce a two-third majority lock into any future legislation was unconstitutional and should be discarded.

Instead, the Cabinet proposed asking the Attorney General, Séamus Woulfe, to prepare an options paper on how changes to future abortion laws should be considered.

Future amendments

Government sources said this would amount to a special Oireachtas committee or a citizens’ assembly being established to assess any future amendments.

Speaking after the Cabinet meeting, Minister for Health Simon Harris said the Government would seek the Attorney General’s opinion on the options available to them.

Mr Harris insisted “there are ways of achieving an assurance of debate on issues that don’t require arbitrary numbers, and I think it’s important Government reflects on that”.

He added: “This time we’ve seen a Citizens’ Assembly, an Oireachtas all-party committee . . . So I think we need to let the Attorney General look at this.”

The decision by Cabinet was widely seen as an attempt to prevent further criticism of Mr Coveney, who was publicly chastised by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The Tánaiste had raised the possibility of introducing a clause in any abortion legislation which would require two thirds of the Dáil supporting any change in the law.

However, Mr Varadkar dismissed the measure confirming he had discussed the matter with the Attorney General, who agreed it was unconstitutional.

In a very public criticism of the Tánaiste, Mr Varadkar said Mr Woulfe advised “it would be contrary to Article 15 of the Constitution and therefore could not be included in this legislation and therefore will not be”.

The Taoiseach added: “There will not be a requirement that any change to primary legislation would require a two-thirds majority as doing so would require an amendment to the Constitution itself and it is not proposed to do that.”

Mr Coveney’s intervention was widely criticised by the Pro-Life Campaign, Fianna Fáil, Labour, Social Democrats and others. Several Ministers also privately criticised Mr Coveney.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet agreed the general scheme of a Bill to allow for access to terminations up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and in other defined circumstances.

It also agreed to progress a series of measures to reduce crisis pregnancies including the establishment of a group to assess access to free contraception.

Mr Harris also committed to enhanced anomaly-scanning services, rolling out the electronic health record for mothers and babies to all maternity hospitals, whereby all their records would be stored digitally, and a new sexual health and safer sex public advertising campaign.

The Bill to allow for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment is being considered by the Seanad and polling day is expected to be announced on Wednesday.

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