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FILE PHOTO: Campaigners stage a protest to demand more liberal abortion laws, in Dublin, Ireland March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne


By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland plans to hold a referendum next May or June on whether it should loosen some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday.

Abortion has long been a divisive issue in once stridently Catholic Ireland where, after a debate elicited large street protests from both sides, a complete ban was lifted in 2013.

Terminations were allowed if a mother's life was in danger.

"The ... proposal is to have a standalone referendum in May or June next year and will very much follow on from the recommendations of the all-party committee which is considering the matter," Varadkar told parliament.

A panel of citizens called together to advise government on the issue voted overwhelmingly that the eighth amendment of the constitution, which enshrines an equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child, should be changed.

The all-party committee is considering those recommendations and is due to report to parliament by the end of the year on the referendum and potential shape of future legislation. Opinion polls show a large majority of voters want some change.

Ireland became the first country to adopt gay marriage by popular vote in 2015 and campaigners seeking a repeal of the eighth amendment want that social change extended to abortion, citing the thousands of Irish women who travel abroad, mostly to England, for terminations each year.

Anti-abortion supporters demand no further changes to the law.

The human rights arms of the United Nations and Council of Europe have pressed the government to, at a very minimum, decriminalise abortion and widen the law to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest.

The referendum on abortion will be among seven the government plans to call within the next two years, it said on Tuesday, including a vote to remove the crime of blasphemy from the constitution.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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