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Irish Prime Minister Enda KennyWikimedia Commons

Ireland's health minister backed away from both sides of the abortion issue on Tuesday when he ruled out holding a referendum to establish the legality of the Irish abortion law.

Minister for Health Dr. Leo Varadkar was responding to an abortion bill tabled by Independent TD Clare Daly that sought to repeal the 8th amendment to the Constitution, which aims to constitutionally legalize abortion in Ireland.

Daly called for her pro-abortion bill to be included with the other referenda, such as the referendum on same-sex “marriage” that Prime Minister Enda Kenny announced yesterday would be included on the ballot, planned for May of next year.

However, the 2013 “Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act” that legalized abortion under certain circumstances is legislation that pro-life activists say violates the clear pro-life provisions contained in the country's Constitution.

Hence, both the Life Institute and Youth Defence pro-life groups have called for the Act to be put to the people in a referendum under Article 27 of the Irish Constitution.

Speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday, Varadkar said his position on the 8th amendment precluded the possibility of a referendum, but, while stating that he does not “support abortion on request or on demand,” he also advocated for a more liberal application of the abortion law than the 8th amendment allows.

“Speaking as Minister for Health, and also as a medical doctor, and knowing now all that I do now, it is my considered view that the eighth amendment is too restrictive,” Varadkar said.

“While it protects the right to life of the mother, it has no regard for her long-term health. If a stroke, heart attack, epileptic seizure happens, perhaps resulting in permanent disability as a result, then that is acceptable under our laws. I don’t think that’s right.”

“I consider myself to be pro-life in that I accept that the unborn child is a human life with rights. I cannot, therefore, accept the view that it is a simple matter of choice. There are two lives involved in any pregnancy. For that reason, like most people in the country, I do not support abortion on request or on demand,” said Varadkar.

“But I also know that this is an issue where there are few certainties, there can be a conflict of rights and difficult decisions have to be made every day, sometimes to save a life, sometimes because the quality of the lives involved also need to be considered,’’ he added, observing that the 8th amendment requires a woman to continue a pregnancy with a child that possibly may not survive outside the womb.

He therefore called for a “considered and careful’’ debate on the issue, saying, “We need a real debate and a genuine attempt to find a consensus.”

The Life Institute condemned Varadkar's statements. Spokeswoman Niamh Uí Bhriain said, “Mr. Varadkar was trying to talk out of the two sides of his mouth on abortion but … he was fooling no-one. She added that he has “pushed Fine Gael into alignment with the extreme left and with abortion on demand by his comments.”

“Leo Varadkar wants to claim he is pro-life but then wants abortion legalized on vague grounds such as health and disability, grounds which have led to abortion on demand in every other jurisdiction,” she said. “It seems he is not happy with the legislation enacted last year which allows for abortion until birth. Maybe he is looking for a role in the Socialist Party given Fine Gael's almighty crash in the polls.”

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Uí Bhriain also described Varadkar's comments in relation to children with a life-limiting disorder as bizarre and enormously hurtful. “He described these vulnerable children, who are very ill, as 'dead'. It was simply reprehensible. What an ignorant remark for a doctor and a Minister for Health to make.”

“Leo Varadkar's comments are the nail in the coffin of any pro-life votes for Fine Gael in the next election,” she stated. “Political change is coming and Fine Gael will be shown to be on the wrong side of history regarding abortion.”

A week before the passage of the permissive abortion law last year, Ireland's pro-life groups warned Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who in his election platform promised he would never bring forward legislation to legalize abortion, that the pro-life movement was committed to political mobilization.

The consequences of the Fine Gael government's action would be far-reaching, Uí Bhriain told the 60,000 people attending the 2013 Rally for Life in Dublin.

“If you refuse, Taoiseach (Prime Minister), to let the people vote, then the people will be heard. 100,000 people have already signed the pro-life pledge, 100,000 will seek to build a new political alternative, 100,000 will remember Taoiseach, that if you ram through this law, you are the abortion Taoiseach and Fine Gael is the abortion party, and they will seek an alternative which protects both mother and baby,” Uí Bhriain said.

“This is not just about abortion, it’s about democracy and letting the people decide on this hugely important issue.”