Leo calls for d-day on abortion after group recommends repealing the 8th
Ireland is heading for a referendum on abortion after a historic vote by TDs and Senators to recommend the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.
A cross-party committee also voted in favour of allowing terminations without restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
Recommendations from the committee will probably set the stage for next year's planned referendum on the issue considered by many to be the most divisive in Irish politics.
It comes as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dail he would like to see a referendum take place as early as May.
Health Minister Simon Harris confirmed that his department was already working on legislation for scenarios that would allow a more liberal abortion regime.
Several weeks of fraught debate culminated in a marathon six-hour meeting of the cross-party committee examining the future of the controversial 1983 Eighth Amendment to the constitution.
Committee members voted 14 to six in favour of repealing the amendment, which gives equal status to the life of a mother and her unborn child.
The committee is to meet again today, as members prepare a report to be submitted to the Dail and the Government next week.
Ministers, in consultation with the Dail, will ultimately decide on any wording to be put to the people in a referendum.
There were passionate, and at times heated, contributions from both sides of the abortion debate.
Senator Ronan Mullen argued that Ireland had been a "beacon of human rights" in the area since the Eighth Amendment was introduced and said it was one of the safest places in the world to have a baby.
Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell, a strong pro-choice advocate, referred to remarks made about low maternal mortality rates, saying: "If the metric we're going to use on women's health is how many we let die, I think we're in a bad situation."
Three Fianna Fail members - Lisa Chambers, Billy Kelleher and Ned O'Sullivan - put forward the proposal on a 12-week limit.
They said that owing to the complexity of legislating for cases of rape and incest, it would be more appropriate to make terminations legal, with no restrictions on the reason, up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
This was passed by 12 votes to five, with the three Sinn Fein members and Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone abstaining owing to her role as committee chairperson.
One of the few votes Ms Noone took part in was to vote in favour of allowing terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, saying she did so because she felt so strongly on the matter.
There was overwhelming support by committee members for access to termination services for women who have received a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.
The committee agreed that on "compassionate" grounds parents should be given this choice if the baby is likely to die before, or shortly after birth.
No gestation limit for such cases was discussed by the committee yesterday and it is understood that would be determined at a later date in further legislation guided by expert medical advice.
The committee also voted in favour of a series of reasons where terminations would be permitted as recommended by the Citizens' Assembly earlier this year, including a risk to life, risk to life by suicide, and risk to physical and mental health.
TDs and Senators also voted in favour of decriminalising abortion for women who undergo the procedure.
However, the committee added a clause designed to protect against the establishment of rogue abortion clinics, recommending that terminations take place only in licensed premises, hospitals or through the legal procurement of abortion pills.
The committee rejected a proposal from Senator Lynn Ruane, which called for socio-economic reasons to be permissible for abortion after 12 weeks.
Ms Ruane said it would support women who suffered from addiction, poverty, domestic violence and prostitution.
Members also rejected access to abortion without reason for up to 22 weeks gestation, with four in favour and 17 against.
Speaking on RTE's Six One News, Ms Noone said the committee was "difficult" to chair owing to the divisive nature of the issue.
She warned that debate would intensify as a referendum neared and called for respectful discussion.
"I think that we need to be very respectful of people's views going forward," she said.
Midwives for Choice, maternity campaign group AIMS Ireland and the National Women's Council of Ireland all welcomed the recommendation.
Meanwhile, pro-life groups arranged a vigil outside Leinster House last night following the vote.
Sinead Slattery, spokesperson for the Pro-Life Campaign, told RTE's Drive Time that "without the Eighth Amendment we are dividing society into two".