This most divisive of subjects will finally be settled - for a generation at least

Leinster House (Stock picture)

Shona Murray

Three months of often unhinged hearings culminated in several historic votes at the Oireachtas Committee on Abortion.

Since September, for several hours every Wednesday, the abortion committee responsible for examining the results of the Citizens' Assembly heard from over 20 witnesses.

Each was invited to speak on the basis of their professional and/or academic relationship to women's health or abortion legislation.

Given the emotive nature of the subject, hearings were regularly interrupted by members on either side objecting to commentary or statements made by witnesses or TDs and senators themselves.

Those deeply opposed to repealing the Eighth Amendment, including pro-life Senator Ronan Mullen, claimed the arrangement was "deeply biased" due to the fact most of the expert witnesses supported a change to the law.

However, committee chair Catherine Noone has defended the system saying witnesses were only invited if they were deemed "experts" and their credibility highly dependable.

Of those who gave evidence Professor Fergal Malone, Master of Rotunda Hospital, rejected being classed as either pro-life or pro-choice, and Professor Rhona Mahony, Master of Holles Street, and Professor Peter Boylan, former master of The Coombe, are not pro-choice activists.

They are clinicians at the frontline on the matter of women's healthcare in Ireland. Notwithstanding some of the disruptions along the way, the voting process at yesterday's six-hour meeting was undertaken mostly in full view of the public with an open ballot.

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The committee not only voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment, but a large majority of members voted to allow access to abortion without restriction for up to 12 weeks' gestation.

The reason for this was twofold according to those in Fianna Fáil who proposed it.

Firstly, this situation ensures women who have been raped or are victims of incest have access to an abortion without having to somehow "prove" themselves.

Medical experts explained to the committee there is no physiological exam to prove rape and any cross-examination of a woman in this case would be cruel and traumatic.

In the event of a court case ensuing an abortion could be used in evidence against an alleged perpetrator; inhibiting the right to a fair trial.

There was also an acknowledgement that the use of abortion pills is already widespread, but unregulated in Ireland and allowing this continue unlicensed would be irresponsible.

For TDs sitting in conservative parties like Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - the latter of which reaffirmed its objection to changing the Eighth Amendment at its last Ard Fheis - voting this way was brave. Abortion is a hugely divisive matter.

Nonetheless the Government has decided it requires attention and a referendum on the matter is the only way to settle the issue, at least for a generation.

The committee will publish its full report on all of its votes on December 20.

It will recommend key areas to address for when the Oireachtas decides what question will be put to the people in a referendum.