Belfast Telegraph

Warning of misinformation in referendum on proposed repeal of abortion ban

The chairman of a cross-party committee which called for the constitutional ban on abortion to be repealed has warned about misinformation and opportunism in the referendum debate.

The Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment found Article 40.3.3, which gives the mother and unborn child equal right to life, is not fit for purpose.

Senator Catherine Noone said the referendum on the proposed repeal, expected in May next year, would lead to an open season for campaigners.

"There will be a lot of misinformation. It will be difficult to keep it factual. It will be a difficult process," she said.

"Anyone can get on the airwaves, essentially, and people will be opportunistic."

In a 40-page report the committee recommended that 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 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.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said earlier this week that ministers would be free to oppose the Government on the referendum even though the Cabinet would have a "collective position" on the issue.

He also emphasised the importance of a referendum commission in informing the public objectively " to refute perhaps things that aren't true".

The committee found that the current laws which allow for a pregnancy to be terminated if a woman's life was at risk have created significant difficulties.

It also called for gestational limits for abortion to be guided by the best available medical evidence and be provided for in legislation.

It said at least two specialist doctors should be asked for assessments in relation to the termination of pregnancy where the life or the health of the woman was at risk.

The committee also called for all pregnant woman to be given access to scans between the 18th and 22nd week of the pregnancy.

Early next year, before a referendum is held, the Government is expected to outline how laws will be changed if the public votes in favour of repealing the constitutional ban.

Three members of the committee did not put their names to the final report - Senator Ronan Mullen, Independent TD Mattie McGrath and Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick.

They described the committee's work as an "unacceptably flawed process" and said it led inevitably to cruel and unjust recommendations.

Orla O'Connor, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, said the committee's findings were a historic opportunity.

"The protected period during the first 12 weeks will be crucial to provide timely access to early abortion for all women and girls who need it, including those who have become pregnant as a result of rape," she said.

"Where a pregnancy becomes a crisis pregnancy at a later stage our doctors must be able to continue to provide care for the pregnant woman in a safe, regulated and non-judgmental environment."

As it stands, the 1983 Eighth Amendment of the Constitution affords equal rights to pregnant women and unborn children.

Terminations are only allowed when the life of the mother is at risk and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is 14 years in prison.

Some 3,265 women gave Irish addresses at clinics and hospitals in England and Wales last year, a drop of almost 200 on the previous year and down from 6,673 in 2001.

Amid increasing access to abortion pills online, the Health Service Executive (HSE) said one internet supplier reported 1,438 contacts from women in 2015.

The committee's work was based on the outcome of the Citizens' Assembly, which voted for legal abortion without restriction as to the reasons, with just under half of those who voted preferring that the procedure be allowed up to 22 weeks gestation.

Twenty-five pregnancies were terminated under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act last year.

Ms Noone said that the committee recommended abortion up to 12 weeks because of complexities in legislating to deal with cases of rape and incest and the increasing availability of abortion pills.

She said other issues highlighted were the need for better sex education and access to free contraception.

Health Minister Simon Harris said proposed laws would be drafted based on the committee's recommendations.

"T his is an issue that, as a nation, we need to deal with definitively," he said.

"I am determined that we will prove ourselves capable of addressing these issues in a respectful way."

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