Independent review of abortion laws should not be treated as “gospel” – Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media during a visit to the Bloom Festival in Dublin’s Phoenix Park (Brian Lawless/PA)
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media during a visit to the Bloom Festival in Dublin’s Phoenix Park (Brian Lawless/PA)

An independent review of Ireland’s abortion laws should not be treated as “gospel” that should be implemented without question, the Taoiseach has insisted.

Leo Varadkar also expressed concern that the debate around potential changes to the legal framework was too focused on politics and personalities, rather than about what was best for women and children.

His comments came after a senior barrister who reviewed the laws expressed disappointment at the Taoiseach and Tanaiste Micheal Martin’s responses to her recommendations and suggested that “a bit of courage wouldn’t go amiss”.

Marie O’Shea recommended a series of operational and legislative changes to the system introduced after the country voted to liberalise its laws on terminations in the landmark referendum in 2018.

While the Government is pressing ahead with the operational recommendations, it has referred the legislative proposals to the Oireachtas’s health committee for consideration.

During the week, the Government lost a Dail vote that would have delayed progress of a private member’s bill tabled by People Before Profit TD Brid Smith that proposes the implementation of the O’Shea recommendations and further reforms.

The amendment was defeated with the assistance of votes from within the Government benches, after coalition parties allowed a free vote.

Ms Smith’s bill will now be considered by the health committee alongside the O’Shea recommendations.

Among the recommendations proposed by the barrister is the removal of a mandatory three-day waiting period between a woman’s initial medical consultation and her being given access to abortion treatment or medication.

The review also recommends the threat of criminal sanction is removed for medics found to have acted outside the provisions of the abortion legislation and that the HSE is given the ability to ensure the provision of services is not disrupted due to issues around conscientious objections held by healthcare staff.

Responding to the initial publication of the review, Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin welcomed Ms O’Shea’s work but both expressed caution around moving to significantly change the legal framework that people believed would be implemented when they voted in the referendum, which overturned the near blanket ban on abortions enshrined in the constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

Appearing before TDs and senators on the health committee on Wednesday, the barrister described their comments as “disconcerting”.

Bord Bia Bloom garden festival 2023
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made the comments during a visit to the Bloom Festival in Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

“Based on the comments of the Tanaiste and the Taoiseach and their perceived reluctance as I found it to interfere with the legislation or amend the legislation, I think that a bit of courage wouldn’t go amiss,” she said.

Mr Varadkar was asked about the issue, including Ms O’Shea’s comments, as he attended the Bloom festival in Dublin on Friday.

“It would never be my view that because an independent review is done that politicians should just accept it without considering it,” he said.

“Generally the process would be that if a report is done, if there are recommendations, that then gets referred to the Government, referred to Parliament, we look at it for a couple of months, we hear all views, all ideas, we don’t just accept it as gospel, and then we respond to it.”

He said it was important to respect the fact people have individual opinions on abortion, and that is why he favoured giving TDs a free vote.

Mr Varadkar highlighted that a government he led called the referendum and he campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote.

But he added: “I also believe that when we called for a ‘yes’ vote at the time, we gave people certain assurances, and those assurances were set out at the time.”

Bord Bia Bloom garden festival 2023
Tanaiste Micheal Martin during a visit to the Bloom Festival in Dublin’s Phoenix Park (Brian Lawless/PA).

The Fine Gael leader continued: “It shouldn’t be about me and it shouldn’t be about any author of a report.

“It shouldn’t be about any particular politician. This should be about what is in the best interests of women and children and of infants. That’s what it’s about.

“And it disappoints me when sometimes the way the coverage of this issue is analysed that it’s about any one politician or whether it was a good day or a bad day for the Government or whether one party is up or down on it.

“It shouldn’t be about that. This is a sensitive issue. It’s an issue of conscience. It’s about the rights of women and also the rights of children. And that’s what we should be thinking and talking about, not whether it’s a win for the Government or a problem for one party or what any one politician thinks. I think the public have moved on from that. I think it would be good if the media and political class did too.”

Mr Martin also stressed his belief that such matters should be decided on free votes in Ireland.

He added: “Secondly, my preference is that the report that has been published, the review was promised at the time of the referendum in terms of how the law operated, I would prefer deliberation and reflection on that at the health committee, just like there was deliberation on the proposals that led to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

“I would like to give that proper due consideration and the health committee take submissions and take perspectives from people.

“There were commitments given at the time of the referendum, we’re very conscious of that too…and the expectations of people.”

The framework introduced after the referendum provides for unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks in term.

After that point, terminations are allowed in certain circumstances, such as in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and when there is a risk to the wellbeing of the expectant mother.

The review has recommended several changes to the system for determining when abortions can be granted post 12 weeks.

Ms O’Shea has insisted the Government has a legal duty to ensure Ireland lives up to its international commitments on abortion provision.

She has suggested that if changes are not made, the Government could face legal challenges, with the prospect of the Taoiseach of the day finding themselves having to make an apology in the Dail and the state having to pay compensation.