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Ireland abortion referendum: Government announces Eighth Amendment vote to be held in May

Protesters during a Strike 4 Repeal campaign march in Dublin to seek a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment. Credit: PA

A referendum will be held in May on whether to amend Ireland's constitution regarding abortion laws, the government has said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Ireland already had abortion, but it was unsafe, unregulated and unlawful.

"In my opinion we cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions," he said.

Voters will be asked whether they want to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which gives equal right to life to the mother and the unborn, and replace it with new wording to allow parliament to legislate on abortion in the future.

Varadkar said if people voted to repeal, the Government would then table draft legislation that would allow for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.

Terminations are currently only allowed in the Irish Republic when the life of the mother is at risk and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is 14 years in prison.

A report published in December by a specially convened parliamentary committee found the Eighth Amendment was not fit for purpose and should be repealed.

That followed recommendations from members of Ireland's Citizens' Assembly to liberalise the law on terminations.

The committee also recommended abortion be available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy without a woman having to explain her decision.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Ireland already had abortion, but it was unsafe, unregulated and unlawful. Credit: PA

"I know this will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make," said Varadkar.

"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 - the balance between the rights of a pregnant woman and the foetus or unborn.

"It is a matter for people to make their own decision based on the evidence they hear, compassion and empathy and I want the debate to be respectful on all sides and it should never be personalised."

"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 continued: "I don't believe the constitution is the place for making absolute statements about medical, moral and legal issues, an issue which is not black and white and can never be explained in black and white." Varadkar said on Saturday he would be campaigning for more liberal abortion laws after thinking "long and hard" on the issue.

"Above all I have listened to women," he said.

"The question has to be a yes or no one - do we reform our abortion laws or do we leave them as they are? For my part I will advocate a yes vote. My own views have evolved over time - life experience does that."

Varadkar said Cabinet ministers will be free to oppose the Government and take different positions on the contentious matter.

Protesters during a Strike 4 Repeal campaign march last year in Dublin. Credit: PA

The referendum will focus on the fate of the Eighth Amendment, not on the specifics on how the law would change if the constitution was altered.

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone said: "As an independent woman sitting at the cabinet table I believe we have reached a significant moment and I am full of emotion at this time.

"As we continue our preparation for a referendum it is my firm hope we will have a respectful debate based on the facts. I hope we will live together in an Ireland someday soon where abortion is safe, legal and rare."

If the electorate vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, any draft legislation would only become law if the Dail voted for it, and that is not a foregone conclusion given the Fine Gael coalition is a minority administration and TDs will vote on conscience.

The outcome of the referendum could also prompt a Supreme Court challenge over whether the Constitution as a whole contains an implied fundamental right for the unborn, on top of the specific terms of the Eighth Amendment.

The exact date for the referendum has not been formally agreed, but the Taoiseach said it would be before the end of May.