A referendum on abortion laws in Ireland will be held at the end of May, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has announced.
Described by Mr Varadkar 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.
The current law does not allow for terminations in cases of rape or incest, or when there is a foetal abnormality.
If citizens vote to reject the Eighth Amendment, responsibility for legislating on abortion laws will pass to the Irish parliament, Mr 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. Mr 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,” Mr 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.
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.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Sinn Fein leader-elect Mary Lou McDonald previously said they supported a parliamentary committee’s recommendations for unrestricted access to abortion for 12 weeks.
Both main parties remain divided, however, with many MPs taking different positions on the issue.
Those campaigning for change point to statistics which show thousands of women travel to Britain to access abortion services every year.
But anti-abortion activists argue 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.