His comments follow remarks by Archbishop Eamon Martin, who said that the taking of a life, whatever that stage in life, is “gravely morally wrong”.
Mr Howlin said that abortion and the eighth amendment was not a “black and white issue”.
“The Catholic Church has a clear view on this, and it is right and proper that the archbishop would express that, and that we should listen to it but we don’t live in a theocracy, the view of priests or bishops or imam is equal to any other citizen in this republic as we celebrate 100 years of the declaration of our republic,” Mr Howlin told RTÉ’s This Week.
“This is a very serious, very profound and difficult issue. I don’t think it’s a black and white issue, I think there are stories to be told of individual circumstances that we need in a republican sense to listen to and to come to a conclusion over.
“I voted against the eighth amendment as a young senator in 1983 because I thought always that an issue of this complexity and this difficulty should not be a black and white issue in the Constitution,” said Mr Howlin. “I think that view was right and I think this generation of Irish citizens are entitled to express their view on that and I hope that they will have the opportunity and I hope that we’ll have a very mature and very open — and to borrow a phrase from the bishop — a compassionate debate about that.
“I have dealt in my own clinics with people who have been raped and ended up pregnant as a result, or pregnant as a result of incest... all cases where women’s health are profoundly affected by pregnancy.
“These are real hard choices for individuals, and to talk in terms of compassion at a very long distance from that pain, I think is not right.
“Our long-standing view is that an issue of this complexity should not be dealt with in the constitution, a couple of lines.
“The Labour Party position is in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, of pregnancy by rape or incest or where there is a threat to the health of a mother, that option should be available in the discussion between an individual woman and her clinicians,” Mr Howlin said.
Yesterday was the Catholic Church’s ‘Day For Life’, and Archbishop Martin called for the retention of the eighth amendment.
“Demands to quash and abolish this amendment go against the good news that the life of every person is sacred and inviolable, irrespective of the stage or state of that life — from the first moment of conception until the moment of natural death,” he said.