Tánaiste now backs abortion up to 12 weeks
Coveney's stance could have a major impact on campaign as Cabinet to hear protocol proposal
Tánaiste Simon Coveney is to back abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy in a dramatic change of heart ahead of the Eighth Amendment referendum.
The Foreign Affairs Minister held a series of meetings with clinicians in recent weeks aimed at establishing safeguards for the administration of abortion pills.
Proposals for a 'Clinical Protocol', including a pause period of between 48 and 72 hours before a woman is given the pill, will be brought to Cabinet by his colleague Health Minister Simon Harris tomorrow.
Writing in today's Irish Independent, Mr Coveney says: "When it comes to prescribing abortion pills early in pregnancy, I have struggled most with this issue.
"If we do nothing, we know pills will continue to be purchased online and taken without medical advice or supervision. We cannot knowingly allow this to continue, given the dangers involved."
Mr Coveney has also been assured that limiting access to pills to the first 12 weeks of gestation will rule out the potential for a child to be aborted on the grounds of a disability.
And where there is any doubt about the length of a pregnancy, a scan will be legally required.
The Tánaiste's shift in position could have a major impact on the course of the campaign as he has long opposed any form of abortion regime in Ireland.
In his article, Mr Coveney expresses concern that people who have legitimate questions about the right to life of an unborn child are "being dismissed as dinosaurs or anti-women".
"Removing the equal right to life of the unborn from our Constitution is not something I easily or immediately supported. I say this as a husband and father of three beautiful young girls," he writes.
Mr Harris will bring a significant level of detail to Cabinet this week on the type of legislation the Government will propose in the event that the Eighth Amendment is repealed.
As well as strict guidelines for access to the abortion pill, he plans to outlaw late-term abortions. This means that abortion will not be permitted after a foetus becomes viable.
The viability of the foetus would be assessed and agreed by two doctors, one of whom would be an obstetrician or a gynaecologist. If viability is established and a pregnancy is to be ended on health grounds, then it will be done through early delivery of the baby.
Mr Coveney has interpreted the safeguards now being put in place to mean that there will be no "unrestricted access to abortion at any point in pregnancy".
"I could never support a law that allows for late-term abortions. The Government will move to close off any suggestion of that happening by stating that a baby who could survive outside the womb will not be aborted in any circumstance," he said.
In cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, he says the State has a duty "to step up" for all women and couples in "these heart-wrenching situations".
"A woman who chooses to carry a baby with a fatal abnormality should have access to expert palliative care for her child, and a woman who wants to deliver a baby with a fatal abnormality early should be able to do so surrounded by support and dignity."
Mr Coveney had faced some criticism for his conflicting stance of supporting repeal but objecting to the 12-weeks proposal - but he said his approach would be based on what allows him to sleep at night.