Irish health minister Simon Harris has defended his decision to start drafting legislation that could legalise abortion, before the committee set up to examine the issue has reported.
A special Oireachtas committee has been set up to consider under what conditions, if any, abortion should be permitted if the Eighth Amendment, which protects the equal right to life of mother and child, was repealed.
However, health officials are already drafting laws, including a way to legislate for potential lawful abortions for rape victims without a conviction, to be ready for a referendum in summer 2018, the timescale indicated by taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The committee is planning to start taking evidence in September.
Mr Harris said he had “great regard” for the committee, which is following the work of the citizens’ assembly. “My department, in conjunction with the office of the attorney-general, is seeking to explore and research the issue so that, in so far as is feasible, as much preparation as possible can be drawn upon once the special joint committee finalises its recommendations,” he said. “I am concerned that we are prepared in the event that a decision is made by the Oireachtas to hold a referendum. This will be important if we are to complete the process in line with the timetable set out by the taoiseach.”
However, Mattie McGrath, an independent TD and one of only two of the 21 on the committee in favour of keeping the amendment, asked Mr Harris if he was trying to accelerate preparations for a vote while it was carrying out its work.
Pro-choice activists have also been agitating for an early referendum, claiming that holding it in June or July, when many students are abroad on holiday, “would effectively mean disenfranchising thousands of young people”.
A crucial decision
The significance of a referendum was highlighted on Saturday, when Mr Varadkar dismissed UN criticism of Ireland’s abortion laws. The UN committee against torture told the Irish government that it had a responsibility to explain to the public that if the state kept its constitutional ban on abortion, it would continue to breach the human rights of women. Mr Varadkar responded saying: “One thing I would be very firm about is that whatever laws we have in Ireland, those laws should be determined by either the Irish people through a referendum or through the Oireachtas voting democratically.”
The news comes after Irish pro-life organisation Youth Defence had some of their information boards seized by gardai (police) in Kilkenny, during their annual roadshow. Spokeswoman Rebecca Roughneen told the Irish Independent that the event has left Irish pro-lifers concerned that they won’t get a fair debate during the referendum. “It was a very peaceful street event which was attracting a lot of support since the referendum is in the news so much these days, and everyone is very concerned in regard to what happened,” she said. “This has very serious implications for a free and fair debate ahead of the referendum on abortion expected in spring.”