Citizens' Assembly on abortion laws holds first meeting
A special committee set up to deliberate on Ireland's strict abortion regime has met for the first time.
The Citizens' Assembly, a randomly selected group of 99 members of the public and chaired by Supreme Court Judge Mary Laffoy, held its first discussions in Dublin Castle.
At the heart of its work is examining the eighth amendment to the Constitution, which gives equal right to life to the mother and to the unborn child.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the assembly is above party politics and he appealed for respect for the members, particularly on social media.
"In a world where anonymity seems to have so much power and so little responsibility, in this assembly you are not only having your voices heard, you are putting your heads above the parapet," Mr Kenny said.
"And because you are, I'm asking Ireland, public and private, official and unofficial, to allow you to undertake this vital work with the necessary dignity, space and freedom."
The Taoiseach described the issues being examined in the assembly as deeply complex, hugely challenging and profoundly ethical.
Abortion law is only one of several topics the assembly is examining but by far the most divisive.
Ireland's strict ban on abortion was clarified in 2014 to allow for a termination if the mother's life is at risk, including from suicide.
But there are growing campaigns for women to be allowed access to abortion if their unborn child is diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality or in cases of rape and incest.
The 99 members of the assembly were chosen at random from around Ireland and their views on abortion were not known in advance.
The assembly will hold a number of public hearings on the issue and it is expected to hear from experts and interested groups.
All hearings are public and streamed online.
The first meeting was described as introductory, allowing members to meet and get a better understanding of the role they will play in the assembly and to consider the key principles underpinning their work and the rules and procedures.
An expert panel will also advise the assembly on each topic it discusses.
Its report on the eighth amendment is expected to be ready for the Dail in the first half of next year.
A pregnancy can be terminated under the Protection Of Life During Pregnancy Act if there is a risk to a woman's life, including from suicide.
The procedure can involve a medical or surgical termination or an early delivery by induction or Caesarean section to deliver the baby.
Figures from the Health Service Executive showed 26 terminations were carried out under the legislation in 2014 and the same number again in 2015.
In both years, 14 arose from a risk to the life of the mother from physical illness, three in relation to suicide and nine following emergencies arising from physical illness.