DUBLIN: Ireland will hold a referendum on liberalizing its restrictive abortion laws at the end of May, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced Monday.
Accepting it would be a difficult decision for voters to make in the traditionally deeply Catholic country, Varadkar said he would be advocating a Yes vote, convinced that abortion no longer had a place in the republic’s constitution.
“This evening, the cabinet gave formal approval to the holding of a referendum on abortion, which will be held at the end of May,” Varadkar said at a press conference in Dublin, following a lengthy meeting with ministers.
He said the exact date would be known following the conclusion of debates in parliament.
Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland and in 1983 an eighth amendment was added to the constitution after a referendum, giving equal rights to the life of the unborn child and the mother.
The law was changed three decades later to allow terminations when the mother’s life is at risk, following public outrage at the death of a pregnant woman in 2012 who was refused an abortion.
Varadkar said debates and votes would be held in the lower and upper houses of parliament, but he was “confident this timeline can be met” for a referendum in late May.
The Irish Times newspaper said its research in recent weeks found comfortable majorities in both houses in favour of a referendum.
“I know this will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make,” said Varadkar, who leads the centre-right Fine Gael party.
“It is a very personal and private issue and for most of us, it’s not a black and white issue; it’s one that is grey. A balance between the rights of a pregnant woman and the foetus or unborn.”
“And it’s a matter for people to make their own decision, based on the evidence they hear, compassion and empathy.”
“I want the debate to be respectful on all sides and it should never be personalized.”
The referendum would be held ahead of a visit by Pope Francis in August.
Varadkar, who trained as a doctor, believes the current laws are too restrictive.
Thousands of Irish women currently travel abroad for abortions every year, mainly to England.
In a referendum in May 2015, Ireland voted by a landslide in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage, a watershed moment which showed how the country had dramatically changed, confirming its emergence from the shadow of the traditionally powerful Roman Catholic Church.