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Ireland to hold abortion referendum at end of May: PM

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Dublin (AFP)

Ireland will hold a referendum on liberalising its restrictive abortion laws at the end of May, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced Monday.

"This evening, the cabinet gave formal approval to the holding of a referendum on abortion, which will be held at the end of May," Varadkar said at a press conference in Dublin.

He said the exact date would be known following the conclusion of debates in parliament.

Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland and in 1983 an eighth amendment was added to the constitution after a referendum, giving equal rights to the life of the unborn child and the mother.

The law was changed three decades later to allow terminations when the mother's life is at risk, following public outrage at the death of a pregnant woman in 2012 who was refused an abortion.

Varadkar said debates and votes would be held in the lower and upper houses of parliament, but he was "confident this timeline can be met" for a referendum in late May.

"The minister for health has been given approval to prepare a referendum bill to amend the constitution. It will be the 36th amendment to our constitution," he said.

The referendum would be held ahead of a visit by Pope Francis in August.

Centre-right Fine Gael leader Varadkar, who trained as a doctor, believes the current laws are too restrictive.

Thousands of Irish women currently travel abroad for abortions every year, mainly to England.

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