Irish Government begins special meeting over abortion referendum
The Irish Government has begun a special meeting to discuss the final details of an anticipated referendum on the country's restrictive abortion laws.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is expected to outline the Government's approach after the specially convened cabinet meeting in Government Buildings, Dublin this evening.
Ministers are expected to formally agree to hold a referendum on the issue.
While the cabinet will adopt a collective position on the issue, Mr Varadkar has said ministers will be able to take different positions on the contentious matter.
Mr Varadkar announced on Saturday that he would be campaigning to liberalise the law.
Terminations are currently only allowed in the Irish Republic when the life of the mother is at risk and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is 14 years in prison.
Last December, a report by a specially convened parliamentary committee found that the section of the state's constitution that confers equal rights on the mother and unborn child - the Eighth Amendment - was not fit for purpose and should be repealed.
That followed recommendations from members of Ireland's Citizens' Assembly to liberalise the law on terminations.
The committee also recommended abortion 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.
The referendum will focus on the fate of the Eighth Amendment, not on the specifics on how the law would change if the constitution was altered.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Health Minister Simon Harris said that he would outline proposals for a potential law change that he would put before the Dail in the event of the Eighth Amendment being repealed.
Mr Harris said that whatever the Cabinet agreed in relation to the referendum bill, the electorate would be asked whether or not they wanted to repeal the Eighth Amendment in full.
Ahead of the meeting, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said that early summer was the preferred time to hold a ballot on the matter.
"We'll talk about some of the timelines involved as to perhaps how quickly we can progress the referendum on the Eighth," Mr Murphy said.
If the amendment in the constitution is repealed, any draft legislation would only become law if the Dail voted for it, and that is not a foregone conclusion given the Fine Gael coalition is a minority administration and TDs will vote on conscience.
The outcome of the referendum could also prompt a Supreme Court challenge over whether the Constitution as a whole contains an implied fundamental right for the unborn, on top of the specific terms of the Eighth Amendment.