The Irish government has agreed to hold a historic referendum at the end of May to decide whether to reform its strict abortion laws.
Voters will be asked whether they want to retain or repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution, which was inserted in 1983 and recognises the equal right to life for mothers and foetuses during pregnancy.
A vote to repeal the amendment would enable parliament to set the laws.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkarsaid his government would begin drafting legislation in line with the recommendations of an all-party parliamentary committee last month, which called for terminations with no restrictions to be allowed up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
“We already have abortion in Ireland but it’s unsafe, unregulated and unlawful and in my opinion we cannot continue to export our problems and import our solutions,” Varadkar told a news conference on Monday in reference to the thousands of women who travel abroad or use abortion pills to end their pregnancies every year.
“I believe that this is a decision about whether we want to continue to stigmatise and criminalise our sisters, our co-workers and our friends or whether we are prepared to take a collective act of leadership to show empathy and compassion,” he added.
A complete ban on abortion was lifted in Ireland in 2013, allowing terminations in cases where the mother’s life was in danger.
The change prompted protests on both sides, with the upcoming referendum also expected to see heated debate over the issue.
Two recent polls suggest that people in Ireland remain split over abortion reforms, with between 51 and 56 percent of voters said to support a proposal to allow abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy, just under 30 percent opposed to reform and the rest undecided.
The polls also showed a clear generational divide with a majority of voters over 65 opposed.
NGO Amnesty International said it welcomed the government's decision to hold a referendum.
”We are on the cusp of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use our voices and votes to stand up for the human rights and equality of women and girls," said Amnesty International Ireland Executive Director Colm O’Gorman.