Irish parliament committee backs referendum on abortion up to 12 weeks

DUBLIN (Reuters) - An Irish parliamentary committee on Wednesday recommended that an abortion referendum due next year should offer the choice of allowing terminations with no restrictions up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy, a more liberal position than some had anticipated.

The cross-party committee’s recommendations are not binding and the final wording of the planned referendum to change some of the world’s strictest abortion laws will be down to the government and require the support of parliament.

Abortion remains an acutely divisive issue in Ireland, where the once all-pervasive political influence of the Roman Catholic church has lessened in the past 20 years.

Legislation was changed only in 2013 to allow terminations in cases where the mother’s life was in danger, after a woman who was having a miscarriage died of sepsis in a hospital where her medical team refused her pleas to end the failed pregnancy.

The government last year began a lengthy process to consider further changes and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar reiterated on Wednesday that he would like to call a referendum for next May once parliament has considered the committee’s recommendations.

A IPSOS/MRBI poll in October showed that 57 percent of voters would support abortion in cases of rape, fatal foetal abnormality or a real risk to the life of the mother. This was widely seen as a likely option to be offered to voters.

Just 24 percent in the same poll said they would support a right to abortion in all circumstances up to the 22nd week of pregnancy.

In supporting a recommendation to legalize the termination of pregnancy “with no restriction as to reason” up to 12 weeks, the committee cited the complexities of legislating for the termination of pregnancy for reasons of rape and incest.

The measure was passed by 12 votes to five with four abstentions.

The committee, which has been holding hearings on the matter for the past three months, voted against a recommendation to allow abortion up to the 22nd week of pregnancy.

The committee’s proposals will be included in a report due to be handed to government on Dec. 20.

Some pro-choice activists have campaigned for a more liberal regime, closer to that of England, which allows terminations to be carried out up to 24 weeks after conception, while anti-abortion supporters demand no further changes to the law.

Writing by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries; Editing by Peter Graff