The Irish Cabinet gave the go-ahead for a referendum to relax the country's strict abortion laws on Monday, 35 years after the Catholic-majority country enshrined abortion as a crime in its constitution.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said a referendum will be held in late May.
Speaking on Monday night after a lengthy cabinet meeting, Varadkar said he would advocate a "yes" vote to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution, which gives equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child.
"We already have abortion -- unsafe, unregulated, unlawful. We cannot continue to export our problem and import our solution," Varadkar said. "I know this will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make. For most of us, it is not a black-and-white issue -- it is very grey."
Linda Kavanagh, spokeswoman for the Abortion Rights Campaign, told CNN her group "will be keeping a close eye on the wording on the legislation and the referendum to make sure that this is done right."
"We've worked so hard to get to this point and we want a very simple question to the people," she said. "We want them to know what this referendum is about, and it is up to the politicians to explain this act to the layperson."
The Pro Life Campaign released a statement calling the government's announcement "as bad as anyone could have envisaged: the removal of legal protection from unborn babies and providing for abortion on demand."
In the statement, Pro Life Campaign spokesperson Dr. Ruth Cullen called the referendum "a very sad and serious moment for our country."
Varadkar said over the weekend he would campaign for abortion laws to be liberalized, in his first public comments on his personal position. A government spokeswoman told CNN that his stance was personal did not necessarily reflect the administration's position.
Varadkar, who came to power in June last year, pledged to hold the referendum following the non-binding recommendations of a Citizen's Assembly. The group heard harrowing testimony from scores of Irish women and received more than 13,000 individual submissions.
Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws in the developed world. It is among just 50 countries that allow terminations only when a woman's life is at risk, according to the Pew Research Center. Incest or rape do not provide legal grounds for abortion in Ireland.
Six other countries ban abortion under all circumstances.
The country's current abortion laws stem from the 8th amendment, which Ireland voted for in a referendum in 1983.
Abortion was not legal before that, but the laws were ambiguous and ignited debate in the 1970s and 80s, as church led a campaign to clamp down on the liberalization of Irish society.
Majority want change
According to a recent Irish Times poll, 56% of Irish voters are in support of changes to Ireland's eighth amendment. It also showed that 113 Irish MPs and senators, a majority, support the repeal of the amendment, while 52 do not. The other 52 are undecided or chose not to say.
The exact language of the referendum has not yet been decided, but calls to "Repeal the 8th" have been steadily growing for years. In March, thousands of activists brought Dublin to a halt during the Strike 4 Repeal rally.
In September, some 40,000 people rallied for changes to the 8th Amendment during the 6th annual "March for Choice," according to organizers.
Irish MPs, nonetheless, have traded barbs in parliament over the issue, and anti-abortion groups have vowed to fiercely protect the 8th amendment.
Ireland's Union of Students had called on the government to hold the vote in May, saying any later date would potentially "create barriers" and cause a drop in the youth vote, due to exam schedules and summer holidays.
"Millions of our young people have not had the opportunity to vote on this issue, and arguably it affects our future generations more than any others," it said in a statement.
Almost 4,000 Irish women, including women from Northern Ireland, traveled to England and Wales to terminate their pregnancies in 2016, according to UK government statistics.
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