Voters will go to the polls in May or June 2018 to decide whether to repeal near-total constitutional ban on abortion
Ireland will hold a referendum next year on whether to repeal its ban on abortion in almost all circumstances, a few weeks before Pope Francis is expected to visit.
Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach, told the Irish parliament on Tuesday that a national vote on whether to abolish the eighth amendment to the constitution, which gives a foetus the status of a citizen even in early pregnancy, would take place in summer 2018.
Under current law, a woman convicted of having an illegal termination in Ireland can face up to 14 years in prison. However, women are free to travel abroad for abortions, and thousands each year do so, mainly to England.
Varadkar said the referendum would be staged either in May or June. The pope is expected to visit Ireland in August.
Varadkar has previously said the eighth amendment is too restrictive. The amendment was introduced after a referendum in 1983 in which it was backed by 67% of voters.
Pro-choice groups in Ireland claim the amendment creates a legal chill factor among medical teams, even in cases where the law permits a termination, such as when continuing with the pregnancy would result in the womans death.
In a statement outlining the minority Fine Gael-Independent coalition governments position on the referendum, Varadkar said: Any amendment to our constitution requires careful consideration by the people. They should be given ample time to consider the issues and to take part in well-informed public debate.
The government set out a timetable for several votes over the next two years, including one on an anti-blasphemy law. In 2015 Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage through a referendum.
Abortion remains a divisive issue. The religious right in the country, particularly lay Catholic groups, see the referendum as their last chance to roll back 25 years of social liberal reform.
According to statistics compiled by the UKs Department of Health between 1980 and 2015, at least 165,438 Irish women and girls accessed UK abortion services. In 2016, the figure was 3,451.
Ailbhe Smyth, convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, said: [We have] repeatedly expressed the view that a referendum should be held as soon as possible. We look forward to a firm commitment to a specific date for a straightforward referendum to repeal the eighth amendment entirely from the constitution.
This week Bernard Durkan, a member of the main governing party in the coalition, Fine Gael, caused outrage among some deputies when he suggested that a better way to deal with crisis pregnancies caused by rape and incest was the morning-after pill.
With regard to rape and incest, presumably rape is reported on the day or the day after, and there is particular treatment fairly readily available, he said.