Ireland starts moves to change abortion law

Ireland voted by 66 per cent in favour of repealing a ban on abortions after an emotional campaign. PHOTO: AFP

DUBLIN (AFP) - The Irish government gave the green light Tuesday (May 29) for new abortion laws to be drawn up following a historic referendum that overturned a constitutional ban in the predominantly Catholic country.

The government hopes the new laws will be in place by the end of the year, following Friday's landslide referendum vote.

"Received government approval today to draft the new law following the decision of the people," Health Minister Simon Harris tweeted.

"This is one of three important pieces of work we need to undertake - the other two being clinical guidelines and regulation of medicines. Work under way! Let's get it done." He hopes the bill can be published within the coming weeks, after which it will be put to the lower and upper houses of parliament.

Ireland voted by 66 percent in favour of repealing a ban on abortions after an emotional campaign, which saw women of all ages share stories about having to travel across the Irish Sea to England for the procedure.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, a former doctor who used to oppose terminations, called the referendum a "quiet revolution".

The government's proposals would see abortion allowed on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and between 12 and 24 weeks in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or a risk of serious harm to the mother's health.

Speaking in parliament on Tuesday, Varadkar said the government wanted to legislate as quickly as possible.

However, he added: "We don't want to rush it." "It's important that we act with haste but not so much haste that we put through bad legislation." He said Harris would begin drafting the new law immediately with a view to having it reach the lower house before its summer recess.

Varadkar said he was considering a suggestion to extend the parliamentary session if necessary.

Blow for Catholic Church

Varadkar, leader of Fine Gael, and Micheal Martin, head of Fianna Fail - Ireland's other main party which props up Varadkar's minority government - both supported a pro-choice vote but some lawmakers in their parties oppose it.

The legislation is likely to win overwhelming approval given the scale of the vote in favour of reform in the referendum.

Campaigners broke down in tears, crowds cheered and champagne corks popped as the result was announced at Dublin Castle on Saturday, with 39 of Ireland's 40 constituencies voting in favour of removing the ban.

The result was another hammer blow to the Roman Catholic Church's authority in Ireland, coming three years after referendum voters backed legalising same-sex marriage.

Ireland introduced a constitutional ban on abortion following a 1983 referendum. Under current legislation, terminating a pregnancy is only acceptable if a mother's life is in danger. Otherwise, it carries a maximum jail term of 14 years.

The ban has led to thousands of women travelling each year to neighbouring Britain, where terminations are legal, or increasingly turning to abortion pills sold online.

Since 1983, around 170,000 Irish women have gone abroad for terminations.

In the UK, abortion is legal on the British mainland but remains outlawed in Northern Ireland and dozens of British lawmakers have called for a change in the law.

Varadkar said he could "certainly imagine" Northern Irish women crossing the border for terminations.

"It's already the case that women who are resident in Northern Ireland... can travel to Ireland and avail themselves of healthcare," he said.

"I imagine it'll be treated as part of our health service in the normal way."

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