Ireland has some of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws
Dublin (AFP) - Thousands of people marched in Dublin on Saturday calling for an overhaul of Ireland's strict abortion laws, as a campaign for change gathers momentum ahead of the upcoming general election.
Ireland has some of Europe's most restrictive abortion laws. Termination is allowed only when there is risk to the life of the mother, rather than just her health.
Campaigners and politicians are calling for a referendum to be held to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution, which grants equal rights to the foetus and the mother.
"We want to sell a really strong, confident message to the government that it's not enough to kick the issue down the road anymore," said organiser Cathleen Doherty of the Abortion Rights Campaign.
"We want to see a pledge to repeal the eighth in their manifestos for the election," she told AFP.
Irish police declined to give an estimate on the crowd but organisers were expecting 8,000 to 10,000 people.
Demonstrators chanted: "What do we want? The right to choose. When do we want it? Now."
Abortion is a deeply divisive issue in Ireland, a traditionally Roman Catholic country, and ignites fierce debate whenever it is raised in public.
May's referendum, on introducing same-sex marriage passed by a resounding "Yes" vote, has added to the momentum for broader social change.
- Going to England for abortion -
This month, popular newspaper columnist Roisin Ingle became the most high profile in a series women to publish their stories about getting an abortion, breaking a taboo and sparking a national conversation on the issue.
"For a lot of women, it's something we have to do. It's a decision we make for ourselves. It's not a shameful decision," Ingle told TV3 on Friday.
Around 177,000 women and girls travelled from Ireland to England and Wales for an abortion since 1971, according to figures compiled by the human rights group Amnesty International.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, of the centre-right Fine Gael party, has said he is not in favour of "abortion on demand" and would not hold a referendum on the issue before deciding what could replace the eighth amendment.
"I have no intention of abolishing the eighth amendment without considering what it might be that might replace it," Kenny said earlier this month.
Amnesty Ireland launched a campaign in June calling on Ireland to change the law so that women and girls can have abortions in the cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities "at the very least."
Ireland must hold a general election by April, and already Labour, the junior coalition partner, has said holding an abortion referendum would be in its election manifesto.
Equality Minister Aodhan O Riordain of the Labour Party said the Irish "can't keep going as we are."
"Four thousand Irish women a year, about 12 a day, are going to England so it's not good enough to export the issue. We have to do it here in Ireland," he told AFP, ahead of the march.
Anti-abortion campaigners said organisers of Saturday's march are in "absolute denial regarding the hurt and heartbreak caused by abortion for many women."
Gary Murphy, political scientist at Dublin City University, said both sides of the abortion argument are mobilising but it is unlikely to dominate the general election campaign.
"This will be an election based around the economy, things like water charges and the property tax are what will count when it comes to the polls," he told AFP.