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Irish cabinet set to decide on historic abortion referendum

Ireland’s cabinet will hold a special meeting this evening to pave the way for a historic referendum on the country’s abortion laws.

Ministers will discuss what question will be put to voters and formally decide when it will take place – most likely in May or June.

Under the Irish constitution, there is a near total ban on abortion.

The eighth amendment equates the life of a foetus in the womb with that of the mother.

Siobhan Donohue had to travel to England to have an abortion.

‘I knew my baby was not going to survive’

The law does not allow for terminations in cases of rape or incest, or when there is a foetal abnormality.

Any changes to the Irish constitution can only be enacted through public plebiscite.

Different options are open to the government on what question could be asked.

They include a simple repeal of the amendment, repeal with abortion allowed up to 12 weeks as recommended by a parliamentary committee, or a question on whether there should be an enabling provision added to the constitution to let parliament legislate on the issue.

The abortion referendum is likely to spark an emotive, difficult and fierce debate in Ireland, where it remains a divisive issue.

Leo Varadkar will ask for the border agreement to be written into the withdrawal bill
Leo Varadkar has said he will campaign to liberalise Ireland’s abortion laws

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 the 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.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said he will campaign to liberalise the country’s abortion laws, saying they “are too restrictive and need to be liberalised”.

It is a view shared by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, who support 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.

More from Republic of Ireland

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 Ireland has unique laws which save thousands of lives every 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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