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Tuesday, 5 March, 2002, 18:51 GMT
Q&A: Irish abortion referendum
Confusion reigns about the Irish abortion referendum on Wednesday. BBC News Online explains why Irish voters are going to the polls on the issue for the fifth time in 20 years.

What are people voting on?

People are not being asked simply to say yes or no to abortion.

Instead they have to say whether or not they agree with a proposed change to the current law.

The main effect of a "yes" vote would be to declare abortion illegal in cases where women were judged to be at risk of committing suicide.

This is currently a grey area, because Irish judges have previously ruled in a landmark case that suicide risk can make abortion legal.

So why is there so much confusion?

The amendment, known as the 25th Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2001 is a complex legal text.

It contains far more than the suicide issue, and trying to understand all its provisions has left many people confused.

For example, it says abortion law applies to embryos "implanted in the womb" - apparently not covering the use of the morning-after pill, which prevents a fertilised egg becoming implanted in the first place.

The amendment also enshrines into the constitution the right to an abortion where the pregnancy could kill the mother. And women would be guaranteed the right to information, or to travel abroad to have an abortion.

As a result of the complexity, the traditional pro- and anti-abortion camps have been divided.

Some people are planning to vote against the amendment because they see the new law as too strict, while others will vote no because they see it as too lenient.

What is the background to the vote?

The Irish constitution makes abortion illegal, and gives the mother and the unborn child an equal right to life.

But in 1992, the Irish Supreme Court added its suicide interpretation to the law, ruling, in effect, that abortion could be legal where suicide was judged to be a risk.

The landmark case itself concerned a 14-year-old girl, X, who was raped, pregnant and threatening suicide.

But the court's ruling has never been officially made into law. That has made doctors unsure if they are acting illegally or not when they have to carry out abortions in other cases where suicide is judged to be a risk.

A yes vote would also enshrine into law the right for women to obtain information on abortion, and the freedom to travel abroad to have one. Around 7,000 Irish women travel to the UK every year to have abortions.

What will change if people vote yes in the referendum?

Abortion would still be illegal unless the mother's life was at risk.

A yes vote would overturn the X-ruling. The threat of suicide would no longer be a valid reason for a legal abortion.

At the same time, doctors who ended a pregnancy in order to save the mother's life would be given more certainty that they were acting within the law.

Who supports the proposed changes?

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail party, and its coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats support the referendum.

The Irish Catholic Church has also backed the yes vote, saying it has the support of the Vatican for its stance.

The no camp has found support from both sides of the debate.

Groups in favour of liberal abortion laws say that the proposed changes would end all protection for suicidal pregnant women.

At the same time, those who want strict limits on abortion are against the referendum because they fear any change to the current laws would lead eventually to abortion on demand.

The BBC's Karen Allen
"The referendum question has left many confused"
See also:

05 Mar 02 | Europe
Anna's story: No regrets
26 Jun 01 | Europe
Ireland wavers on abortion
27 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Bishop calls for abortion referendum
15 Jun 01 | Europe
No abortions on 'abortion ship'
05 Apr 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Ireland
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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