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FILE PHOTO - Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May welcomes Ireland's Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to Downing Street in London, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he would prefer to hold a referendum on easing the country's abortion laws next May in June in order to maximise the number of students who can vote.

The government promised last week to hold a referendum in May or June on loosening of some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, and will decide in the coming months exactly what question to put to the Irish people.

As many Irish students spend the summer months travelling or working overseas, pro-choice activists have warned that holding the vote in June would effectively mean disenfranchising thousands of young voters.

"It is very much my preference that the referendum should be held in May, rather than June, so that we can maximise the number of people that can take part in it," Varadkar told parliament.

"That makes sense. I've met student groups and I have said that to them."

Abortion remains a divisive issue in once stridently Catholic Ireland, where a complete ban on the procedure was only lifted in 2013 to allow terminations in cases where the mother's life was in danger.

Tens of thousands of people marched in Dublin on Saturday to demand a more liberal regime, closer to that of England, which allows terminations to be carried out up to 24 weeks after conception. Thousands of Irish women travel to England for abortions each year.

Anti-abortion supporters demand no further changes to the law. Opinion polls show a large majority of voters want some change.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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