Voters will be deciding on abortions 'up to 12 weeks'
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has strongly indicated to Cabinet colleagues that a referendum next summer will ask people if they want to allow abortions up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
While accepting that for many politicians it will be "one step too far", the Taoiseach paved the way for the framing of the referendum question.
He has told ministers they will have three options when the issue comes back on their agenda in the coming weeks.
"He told us we can 'do nothing' which isn't really an option, we can work off the Oireachtas Committee report or we can come up with something new," said a minister.
"Essentially that was taken to mean that we will be basing the referendum around the committee's report."
The report proposed repealing the Eighth Amendment and allowing unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks through a GP-led service.
Mr Varadkar admitted this "went further than many people would have anticipated". "It certainly went further than I would have anticipated a year or two ago," he said.
However, he said that having read the committee's report he understands the logic behind the conclusions "particularly given the widespread availability now of the abortion bill".
"People are getting that over the internet and using it without medical supervision all over Ireland every day," Mr Varadkar said.
"There's a concern understandably among many politicians that the proposal might go one step too far, then again perhaps not - so that's the debate we're going to have over the next few months."
During the two-hour Cabinet discussion, Health Minister Simon Harris said it will be possible to hold the referendum on May 25 if there are no delays during the Dáil process.
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He received permission from ministers to begin work on potential legislation and come back to ministers at the end of the month for an update.
It is expected that he will have the necessary paperwork ready in early February to clear the way for a referendum.
Mr Varadkar said: "We will come back to Cabinet before end of the moment to decide how we will proceed and it remains our intention to put a question to the people by way of referendum this summer.
"It is very much a private and personal matter, and there is a diversity of views within the Cabinet, the Oireachtas, in every political party and I think in almost every family and household."
The Taoiseach refused to give his personal position on abortion but committed to doing so once the final question to be put to the public is clear.
He said ministers and Fine Gael TDs will be free to campaign on either side of the debate or to stay out of it altogether if they wish.
"This is a private and personal issue. I want to respect everybody's views on it, both within the Cabinet and within the party.
"It is my strong view and I think there is a strong consensus around the Cabinet table that the question should be put to the people this year," Mr Varadkar said.
"People will be able to campaign freely in accordance with their conscience, or not campaign at all if that's their preference.
"I will advocate to people along the lines of the views I express but I'm not going to be ramming my personal opinions down anybody's throat."