The Irish government announced Tuesday that a referendum on the country’s abortion laws – some of Europe’s most restrictive – will be held next year.
In a statement, the Irish government said the referendum would be held in May or June 2018, just months before Pope Francis is due to visit the Catholic-majority country.
Ireland’s abortion laws are drawn from the 8th amendment to the country’s constitution, which places the right to life of an unborn child on equal footing with the right to life of the mother.
Ireland’s Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who came to power in June, pledged to hold a referendum following the non-binding recommendations of a Citizen’s Assembly. The group heard harrowing testimony from scores of Irish women and received more than 13,000 individual submissions.
In Tuesday’s statement, Varadkar said the Citizen’s Assembly report was “currently being considered” by a parliamentary committee. The precise timetable for the referendum would be defined in legislation that would be brought forward.
“A Bill to amend the Constitution will be prepared in light of the committee’s report, and subject to its passage by the Houses of the Oireachtas (Parliament), a referendum will be held in May or June of 2018.”
Varadkar has generally expressed conservative views on abortion, although he has suggested the 8th amendment is too restrictive.
“Any amendment to our Constitution requires careful consideration by the people,” he said Tuesday. “They should be given ample time to consider the issues and to take part in well-informed public debate.”
A growing movement
Calls to “Repeal the 8th” have been steadily growing for years. In March, thousands of activists brought Dublin to a halt during the Strike 4 Repeal rally.
This Saturday, organizers expect tens of thousands to demonstrate in the Irish capital at the sixth annual March for Choice.
Many local abortion rights activists applauded Tuesday’s announcement, but noted that the terms of the referendum might only be a first step for the repeal movement.
Linda Kavanagh, spokesperson for the Abortion Rights Campaign told CNN: “We welcome the news that the referendum will be in the first half of the 2018. We have all waited long enough to be allowed to make decisions about our own bodies.”
“However we reserve judgment until we see the wording of the referendum…We fear that the wording of a referendum will offer only very limited abortion access and repeat the failures of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.”
Almost 4,000 Irish women, including women from Northern Ireland, traveled to England and Wales to terminate their pregnancies in 2016, according to UK government statistics.
“We need broad-based legislation so that real and realistic access is given, otherwise thousands will still travel or break the law by importing and taking abortion pills. It is vital that the government realize that the 30,000 plus people who take to the streets on Saturday for the March for Choice are doing it because they want free, safe and legal abortion access,” Kavanagh added.
Anti-abortion campaigners said they would continue their campaign in light of Tuesday’s announcement.
Cora Sherlock, a spokesperson for Ireland’s Pro Life Campaign group told CNN: “We have never claimed that Ireland is perfect, but we have every reason to be proud of the 8th Amendment.
“The Pro Life Campaign will continue to highlight the positive effects of the 8th Amendment and the devastating effect abortion has had in countries where the rights of the baby are set at zero.”