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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 20:12 GMT
Irish opposition urges abortion rethink
Triumphant voter as results are announced
Pro-choice voters are pleased but abortion is still highly restricted
Irish opposition parties have clamoured for debate on the country's virtual ban on abortion after voters rejected a government move to further restrict women's limited access to terminations.

Bertie Ahern
It was Mr Ahern's second referendum defeat in less than 12 months
By a margin of just 10,500 votes, or less than one percent of the total, a proposal to stop the threat of suicide being used as a grounds for abortion was defeated in a referendum.

The referendum did not ask voters if they wanted a legalisation of abortion, which is currently only available when a woman's life is at risk. But both the opposition Fine Gael and Labour Party said the poll had proved it was time for debate.

"The position of the Labour Party is clear," said leader Ruairi Quinn. "We want legislation."

Blow to morale

The government, backed by the Roman Catholic church, had been trying to close a legal loophole under which abortion can be carried out if a pregnant woman says she is suicidal.

I think people saw the referendum proposal as an honest attempt by this government to fulfil a promise we gave to try and deal with the matter

Foreign Minister Brian Cowen
It was the second referendum Mr Ahern has lost in less than 12 months, after voters rejected a key EU poll when summoned to the polls last June.

This second defeat is seen as an embarrassing set-back for Mr Ahern's minority coalition, which is dependent on the support of independent pro-life members of parliament. Mr Ahern would also like to be re-elected in May's general elections.

Mr Ahern's cabinet colleagues however played down the result on Friday.

"I think people saw the referendum proposal as an honest attempt by this government to fulfil a promise we gave to try and deal with the matter," said Foreign Minister Brian Cowen.

"It's not an issue."

But correspondents say the defeat is a blow to morale in the party, which has enjoyed a string of opinion polls identifying Mr Ahern as the country's most popular politician.

After five years in office, his personal rating in the polls pushes at the 70% mark, clearly ahead of his main rival, Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan.

Abortions abroad

This week's referendum sprung from a case dating back to 1992, when a suicidal 14-year-old who had become pregnant after being raped was granted the right to a termination by the country's Supreme Court.

Even with the backing of a judicial ruling, the girl still had to travel to the UK as doctors prepared to carry out the abortion had no legal certainty that they would not be prosecuted.

An estimated 7,000 women cross the sea for abortions in the UK each year. A recent survey found that nearly one in 10 Irish pregnancies ends in a UK clinic.

Pro-choice groups say that the government's willingness to allow women to travel abroad for terminations but not to allow the operation at home is highly hypocritical.

Irish abortion
Your reaction to the referendum result?
See also:

07 Mar 02 | Europe
Irish PM concedes abortion defeat
26 Jun 01 | Europe
Ireland wavers on abortion
27 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Bishop calls for abortion referendum
03 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Legal challenge to NI abortion law
20 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
No change to abortion law
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