Cabinet split on proposed changes to abortion law as Greens back reform

Some ministers anxious about making widespread changes recommended by independent review

Cabinet Ministers are split on proposals to change Ireland’s abortion law, with Green Party Ministers backing the removal of the three-day waiting period to access termination medication.

A new report has recommended sweeping changes to the existing abortion law, including making the three-day wait optional, decriminalising medical practitioners and extending the 12-week time limit to access abortion without condition, under certain circumstances.

The review by barrister Marie O’Shea was discussed by Cabinet on Tuesday morning, and Ministers are split on whether major changes should be made. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he would be “reluctant and uncomfortable” to make significant changes, and it is understood other Fine Gael Ministers, including Simon Coveney and Heather Humphreys, have concerns similar to those held by the Taoiseach.

Green Party Ministers, however, have welcomed the report and called for the removal of the three-day wait.


A spokesman for Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said: “He has no concerns about the report. He campaigned for repeal, and would support the removal of the three-day waiting period. He’s looking forward to the Oireachtas Committee examining it.”

Green Party Minister for Tourism and Culture Catherine Martin said: “I am glad to see that the report has been completed as the Green Party negotiated this review into the Programme for Government. I support the removal of the three-day waiting period but look forward to the report being studied in greater depth by the Oireachtas Health Committee.”

A spokeswoman for Green Party leader Eamon Ryan stopped short of calling for a change to the law, but said he welcomed the completion of the report.

“Minister Ryan is happy to see that the report has been completed and he’s looking forward to the Oireachtas committee studying its recommendations.”

In a memo to Cabinet, seen by The Irish Times, Ministers were told that “changes to the legislative framework would require careful contemplation and discussion to ensure that they secure as broad a support base as possible.”

Ministers were also told that the chair of the review recommended changes to the circumstances under which conscientious objection may be exercised. This would involve changing the law to include a provision similar to rules in New Zealand that empower employers to refuse to accommodate conscientious objection when it is necessary to uphold a woman’s right to healthcare.

Beyond the legislative changes, the review also makes a series of operational recommendation and calls for the expansion of the service from both a community and hospital perspective. Currently, there are just 422 community providers of abortion services and only 11 of the 19 maternity hospitals are involved in such service provision. The Taoiseach said on Tuesday that the Government would act “right away” to fill those gaps.

The Cabinet meeting was told that the Government plans to ensure that 17 of the 19 maternity sites provide termination of pregnancy services by the start of autumn.

The review itself found that the provision of abortion services in some parts of the Republic is “untenable”, while healthcare workers who abuse their right to conscientiously object do so “with impunity.”

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times