By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister will support a referendum to loosen restrictive abortion laws but not the more liberal rules his government will propose in their place should the vote be successful, he said on Thursday.
Voters will be asked as soon as May if they wish to repeal the section of Ireland's constitution that was inserted in 1983 and enshrined the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child, and to instead enable parliament to set the laws.
While not on the ballot paper, the government has said it will begin drafting legislation in line with the recommendations made by an all-party parliamentary committee last month, which called for terminations with no restrictions to be allowed up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
Simon Coveney became the first minister to say he could not support unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks, a view he said reflected the "middle ground position" and could leave voters in the dark about what the new regime will look like if they vote to liberalise the current laws.
"That will be the starting point but anybody who knows how the system works that a starting point in legislation is not an end point," Coveney told national broadcaster RTE, referring to the legislation which will be laid out ahead of the referendum.
"We'll tease through the issues and I believe that will be the best way to get a balanced piece of legislation which I hope to be able to support which can protect an unborn child but prioritise the health and life of a mother."
Abortion has long been a divisive issue in once stridently Catholic Ireland where a complete ban was only lifted in 2013 when terminations were allowed in cases where the mother's life was in danger.
Coveney said he would instead favour a regime that included abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape. The all-party committee cited the complexities of legislating for the termination of pregnancy for reasons of rape and incest as a key reason why it recommended unrestricted access up to 12 weeks.
Ireland's two largest parties will allow members a free vote on legislation that would follow if the referendum is approved, meaning Prime Minister Leo Varadkar cannot guarantee voters that his minority government will be able to introduce access up to 12 weeks, a measure he supports.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Janet Lawrence)