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Thursday, 7 March, 2002, 20:34 GMT
Irish PM concedes abortion defeat
Statue outside polling station, voters entering
Turnout is thought to have been below 50%
The Republic of Ireland has narrowly voted against a change to its constitution which would have further tightened the country's strict abortion laws.

Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern: Depends on independent pro-life MPs
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose Government wanted to prevent women using the threat of suicide as a grounds for termination, said he was "disappointed" with the results of the referendum.

"But I am a democrat. The people's choice is the final word," he said after the votes had been counted, describing his efforts as "honest and genuine".

It is 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.

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 claims to be suicidal.

The 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.

Town and country

The amendment was defeated by just 10,500 votes in a ballot which displayed a clear divide between urban and rural areas.

Anybody who wants an abortion will just keep on going to England

Marian Loftus, Dublin mother-of-two
In the Dublin area, home to one-third of the country's 3.8m population, up to 70% voted against the proposal, a picture mirrored in the southern city of Cork and western Limerick.

The reverse was true in rural areas, where the Catholic Church retains a strong hold over public opinion.

Turnout was, at 42%, as low as predicted.

Bad weather appeared to have been one factor that discouraged people from visiting polling stations, but widespread confusion about the complexities of the proposals is also believed to have played a part.

It was the fifth time in less than 20 years that Irish citizens had been asked to vote on the abortion issue.

Destination UK

Abortion nonetheless remains illegal in the country, except in special circumstances where the life of the mother is threatened.

But Wednesday's referendum means these circumstances will continue to include the risk of suicide.

The exception for suicidal mothers-to-be was established in 1992 for a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped.

The Irish Supreme Court ruled that the victim, known as X, was entitled to a termination in Ireland, although ultimately she had to travel to the UK as doctors prepared to carry out the abortion had no legal certainty that they would not be prosecuted.

Mr Ahern's government wanted to close this loophole, declaring women might pretend to be suicidal in order to terminate their pregnancies.

Irish women are still able to travel to the UK for abortions, a provision which pro-abortion campaigners in Ireland have branded hypocritical.

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

The BBC's Denis Murray
"Abortion is still a deeply divisive issue"
Bertie Ahern, Irish Prime Minister
"Today's result is a culmination of a substantial consultation process"

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

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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