Health Minister Simon Harris Photo: Frank McGrath
Health Minister Simon Harris Photo: Frank McGrath

Abortion is already a reality in Ireland and needs to be dealt with through legislation, Health Minister Simon Harris will tell the Dáil today.

The minister is to lead the Government side of the Eighth Amendment debate in the absence of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who is still refusing to offer an opinion on the issue.

Two days of statements will get under way this evening with all 157 TDs entitled to speak for up to 20 minutes on the Oireachtas committee report, which recommended allowing terminations up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

Sources say Mr Harris will plead with deputies to set a “respectful” tone for the months ahead.

The Irish Independent understands he will use the opportunity to argue that abortion is already a reality for women in Ireland today.

The minister will point out that while it has been long known that Irish women travel abroad to end pregnancies, the growth of abortion pills now needs to be acknowledged.

A source said: “The minister will make the point that as a State it’s time to take action to protect women and look after their healthcare needs with care and compassion.”

Unusually for such a debate, Mr Harris told his advisers and department officials that he wants to write his own speech.

It comes as pressure mounts on the Taoiseach to offer clarity about his own position.

Mr Varadkar has been accused of “undermining” the work of the all-party committee on the Eighth Amendment by sending out mixed messages.

He has publicly warned that allowing unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks may be “one step too far”, but has also told Fine Gael TDs it is the “strong option” on the table ahead of a referendum.

In the Dáil, he said he was committed to having a referendum in May or June.

Mr Varadkar said he was not prepared to state his personal opinion until he knew exactly what question is being put to the people.

He said there was uncertainty about whether it would be a simple case of asking whether people want to repeal the Eighth, or if it should be repealed and replaced with a line giving the Oireachtas sole power to legislation for abortion.

“We are awaiting advice from the Attorney General about that because we would find ourselves in a very strange situation if we repealed the Eighth Amendment only to find out that other rights to life exist in other parts of the Constitution that might then make any legislation we pass unconstitutional,” he said.

On the type of abortion regime that might be introduced, Mr Varadkar said draft legislation should be prepared before a referendum but “the legislation would then be in the purview of the Oireachtas and this Government does not have a majority in the House”.

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin criticised Mr Varadkar for not stating his view on the committee’s report, which was published before Christmas.

“I think that’s unfortunate. I think it is not giving leadership. We need clarity,” he said.

Fianna Fáil’s health spokesman Billy Kelleher accused the Taoiseach of “undermining” the process.

However, he defended his own party leader, Micheál Martin, for stalling on making his own position clear.