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  • Abortion is illegal in Ireland unless there is a real and substantial risk to the mother’s life.

    Abortion is illegal in Ireland unless there is a real and substantial risk to the mother’s life. | Photo: AFP

A woman convicted of having an illegal termination in Ireland faces up to 14 years in prison.

Ireland has announced that it will hold a referendum next year on whether to repeal its constitutional ban on abortion in almost all cases.

The referendum is set to be held just a few weeks before Pope Francis visits in August.

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Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has previously said that the eighth amendment of the constitution, which makes abortion illegal unless there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, was "too restrictive."

His government has now decided that a referendum — which must be agreed by Parliament — should take place in May or June 2018, just before the pope visits in August to attend the World Meeting of Families.

The eighth amendment recognizes the equal right to life of the unborn child and the mother — and a woman convicted of having an illegal termination faces 14 years in prison.

However, women are free to travel abroad for abortions and thousands do so every year, mainly to England.

Opinion polls in recent years have consistently indicated strong support for reform in Ireland, which remains largely Catholic but where scandals have dented the church's authority.

Thousands of people are expected in Dublin on Saturday for the annual "March for Choice," declaring: "We are ready for change."

"We need access to free, safe and legal abortion for all who need or want it. And we need it now," organizers said.

The Irish Constitution can only be amended by referendum. In 2015 it became the first country to legalize gay marriage via a referendum.

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The government is also planning to remove Ireland's anti-blasphemy law and reduce the time couples must spend apart before divorcing.

The government set out a timetable Tuesday for several votes over the next two years, including on reducing the time couples must wait before a divorce from four to two years.

In October 2018, it proposes a referendum on the constitutional amendment which makes illegal the "publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter."

At the same time, it proposes a vote to repeal or change a section relating to a woman's duties in the home.

"Any amendment to our constitution requires careful consideration by the people," Varadkar said in a statement.

"They should be given ample time to consider the issues and to take part in a well-informed public debate," he said.

"Setting a timetable for the referendum to be held over the next two years will allow all involved in campaigning on the issues to plan ahead and to facilitate that public debate."

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