Ireland to hold abortion referendum in May

The Catholic country will vote to decide whether to repeal a constitutional amendment that effectively bans terminations

The Irish government has agreed to hold a referendum on abortion laws at the end of May, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has announced.

The vote will decide whether to repeal a constitutional amendment that effectively bans terminations. This referendum could reform the country’s near-total ban on abortion.

Varadkar  described the situation as a "difficult decision for the Irish people to make."

The referendum will ask citizens whether they would like to retain the Eighth Amendment of the constitution, under which the life of a mother and her unborn child are equal.

The Eighth Amendment was signed into Irish law in October 1983, following a referendum the previous month.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar talking about the referendum (photo: Sky news)
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar talking about the referendum (photo: Sky news)

Currently abortion is only allowed when a woman's life is at risk, but not in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.

If citizens vote to reject the Eighth Amendment, responsibility for legislating on abortion laws will pass to the Irish parliament, Varadkar said.

In the run up to the referendum, health minister Simon Harris will prepare and publish draft legislation proposing laws allowing for unrestricted abortions up to 12 weeks. Varadkar said the draft laws would only permit abortion after 12 weeks in "exceptional circumstances".

"I know it is a very personal and private issue and for most of us it is not a black and white issue, it is one that is grey," Varadkar said.

He added that he had thought "long and hard" before deciding to support abortion without restriction in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

"The saddest and loneliest journey is made by Irish women who travel to foreign countries to end their pregnancies. That doesn't have to happen," he said.

"Above all I have listened to women. For my part I will advocate a yes vote. My own views have evolved over time - life experience does that."

The referendum announcement came after a special meeting of the Irish cabinet on Monday evening.

Back in September, tens of thousands rallied in Dublin for constitutional change

Two recent polls have shown a significant move in public opinion since the mid-1980s, when the Roman Catholic Church held sway over public discourse.

A clear majority of all voters - 56% - said they would vote in favour of a constitutional change, with 29% not in favour, and 15% saying they did not know or offering no opinion, according to an Irish Times poll published last week.

In 2016, 3,265 women and girls gave Republic of Ireland addresses when accessing abortion services at clinics in England and Wales, according to UK Department of Health statistics.

The National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) welcomed Monday's announcement.

Anti-abortion activists have however argued that Ireland has unique laws which save thousands of lives each year, and that the removal of the Eighth Amendment would lead Ireland to mimic "ultra liberal" and "abortion on demand" British laws.

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