Turning blind eye on abortion same as turning our backs, says Harris
Health Minister Simon Harris listed the number of women from every county in Ireland who travelled to the UK for an abortion in 2016 as he told of the "sad reality" that we have been exporting the issue.
Opening a two-day Dáil debate on the Eighth Amendment, Mr Harris said: "These are not faceless women. They are our friends and neighbours, sisters, cousins, mothers, aunts, wives."
His speech was the clearest indication yet that the Government will ultimately support the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee which proposed allowing unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks.
However, a string of senior Government figures including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed and Business Minister Heather Humphreys have decided not to participate in the Dáil debate.
Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher spoke about how he has struggled with the question of abortion but has reached a clearer view after sitting on the Oireachtas committee.
"My personal or political discomfort is nothing compared to the discomfort caused to women every day of the week who are grappling with crisis or unwanted pregnancies or the devastating news of fatal foetal abnormalities. We must be conscious of that," he said.
While Mr Kelleher was in the Dáil, members of his party were holding a private meeting.
Sources said some TDs, including Kevin O'Keeffe and Mary Butler, criticised the stance taken by their health spokesperson in recent days.
Party leader Micheál Martin did not offer his opinion but did say that a referendum should be held.
Mr Harris said: "I can't help but wonder what we would have done if we didn't have a neighbouring island to help us turn a blind eye. And sometimes turning a blind eye is the same as turning your back."
The largest number of women travelled from Dublin (1,175), Cork (241), Kildare (120) and Galway (113) while the fewest were from Longford (16) and Monaghan (15).
The minister also spoke about "new realities" that mean some women are having abortions in Ireland by taking pills bought over the internet.
"Can we just pause and picture what this is telling us? Is it acceptable to any of us that women are once again left in a lonely and scary place sending off for a pill to be sent through the post instead of being able to access the medical advice and support they need?
"How can we ignore it? If it is the sad reality that we have been exporting this issue, are we now accepting that women must import their own solutions?" he asked.