IRELAND – Thousands of demonstrators marched in Dublin on Saturday in favour of liberalising Ireland's tight abortion laws ahead of a planned referendum on the fiercely-debated issue.
Protesters chanted, "My body, my choice" and waved placards reading "Not the church, not the state: women should decide their fate", as they headed through the capital towards the parliament.
Linda Kavanagh, a spokeswoman from the Abortion Rights Campaign which organised the rally, told AFP: "The message today is 'time to act' because we've waited for a long time for a change.
"We want full repeal. We can't support exceptions and only a hundred people allowed to get access to abortion."
Keishia Taylor, a spokeswoman for the organisation ROSA (For Reproductive Rights, told AFP: "I think today is going to be a huge turnout, a turning point."
Campaigners were expecting 30,000 to attend, but the police declined to give a crowd estimate.
Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland and in 1983 an eighth amendment was added to the constitution after a referendum, giving equal rights to the life of the unborn child and the mother.
Ireland will hold a referendum in 2018 on whether to change abortion laws. Abortions are only legal if the mother’s life is in danger. pic.twitter.com/GjcQvZsUI1— AJ+ (@ajplus) September 27, 2017
The law was changed three decades later to allow terminations when the mother's life is at risk, following public outrage at the death of a pregnant woman in 2012 who was refused an abortion.
In the face of mounting public pressure, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Tuesday announced plans for a referendum on the issue to be held in May or June 2018, ahead of a visit by Pope Francis in August.
- Polarised nation -
Ireland is still deeply divided over the issue.
A recent poll by Ipsos/MRBI found 67 percent of respondents were opposed to abortion in general but that 76 percent were in favour of legalising it cases of rape.
Varadkar, who trained as a doctor, has called the current laws "too restrictive".
Varadkar has said he would support abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities but is not supporting wider liberalisation.
Thousands of Irish women currently travel abroad for abortions every year, mainly to England.
A "March for Choice" took place in London outside the Irish embassy on Saturday.
The upcoming vote has rallied those on both sides of the debate, including activists seeking to keep the current legislation in place.
In central Dublin, a small number of activists opposed to abortion handed out leaflets on Saturday, something they intend to do every week from now on.
"The country is very polarised at the moment, so what we try to do now is to reach people on the fence, who haven't made up their minds yet," said organiser Alan Keena.
- Balance of public opinion -
The Irish government has already sought to gauge public opinion, setting up a Citizens' Assembly which between November and April debated the eighth amendment.
Summing up their discussions, a majority of the 99 members recommended legalising abortion in a wide range of circumstances.
A parliamentary committee has also been examining the abortion law, but on both sides of the debate there is mistrust of officials' approach.
"The wording of the referendum will have a large bearing on the outcome and my instinct is that there will be compromise, there has to be, because there are 22 people from all sides on that committee," said Anna McKenna, 66, a retired teacher on Saturday's march.
Although the pro-abortion camp reacted positively to the referendum announcement, there is suspicion that MPs continue to be heavily influenced by the church in the mainly Catholic country.
Unlike the referendum which saw Ireland vote in favour of same-sex marriage in May 2015, no politicians have yet taken a strong position calling for greater abortion access.
Irish media has reacted similarly, reluctant to take a bold stance on an issue which has divided Irish society.