The experiences of thousands of Irish women who travel to the UK every year for an abortion have been recounted during a key debate on a proposed referendum on the controversial issue.
Health Minister Simon Harris said: “Women from every county in the Republic of Ireland travelled to the United Kingdom to access an abortion and I think we have to acknowledge them all.
“It’s the sad reality that we’ve been exporting this issue.”
The debate came as an expected referendum looms on repealing the Eighth Amendment, the section of the Constitution which gives an equal right to life to the mother and the unborn.
Last December, a report by a specially convened Oireachtas committee found that Article 40.3.3 was not fit for purpose and called for it to be repealed.
In its 40-page report the committee recommended abortion should be available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy without a woman having to explain her decision, and that the procedure should be allowed if the life or health of the woman was at risk.
It also called for expectant mothers to be allowed an abortion at any stage of the pregnancy if doctors diagnosed a foetal abnormality that was likely to result in death before or shortly after birth.
At the start of a Dail debate that gave TDs the opportunity to state their position on the issue, Mr Harris said that in 2016 3,265 Irish women travelled to the UK alone to have an abortion.
He added it is estimated that 170,000 Irish women have travelled for an abortion since 1980.
“These are not faceless women, it might be convenient for us sometimes to think that they are, they’re not,” he said.
“They are our neighbours, our sisters, our cousins, our mothers, our aunts, our lives.
“This time around let’s be honest about this. This is not a decision or a procedure that anyone takes lightly. Women agonise about it.”
Fianna Fail TD Billy Kelleher said politicians had a duty to address the issue because there was a huge number of people in Ireland who have never had the opportunity to cast their vote on the matter.
“This is an issue that I have been grappling with,” he said.
“We have to acknowledge that people have deeply held views, morally, ethically, and even religiously.
“At the same time my personal or political discomfort is nothing compared to the discomfort that is caused to women every day of the week grappling with a crisis pregnancy, or an unwanted pregnancy or the devastating news of a fatal foetal abnormality.”
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said of repealing the Eighth Amendment: “It is the right thing to do, it will correct an historic wrong.”
Earlier in the Dail, opposition TD Ruth Coppinger voiced her concern that four weeks after the publication of the committee’s report some politicians still had not read it.
“The number of deputies who have not had time to read it, you’d think they had been asked to read War and Peace,” she said.
Debates are being held in both the Dail and the Seanad on the matter so that all TDs and senator can express their views.
As the debates got under way, anti-abortion and pro-choice groups gathered outside Leinster House.
The debates are set to conclude on Thursday.