Media captionClaire had to carry her pregnancy to full term and describes her experiences

The Irish government has agreed to hold a referendum at the end of May on whether to reform the country’s near-total ban on abortion.

The vote will decide whether to repeal a constitutional amendment that effectively bans terminations.

Currently abortion is only allowed when a woman’s life is at risk, but not in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said that he will campaign for reform.

The ballot will not be on specific terms of any new law, but on whether to retain or repeal article 40.3.3 of the constitution, known as the Eighth Amendment.

The amendment, which was approved by a 1983 referendum, “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn” – meaning the life of the woman and her unborn child are seen as equal.

Hundreds of pro-choice protesters in Dublin on 30 SeptemberImage copyrightAFP/GETTY
Image captionTens of thousands rallied in Dublin in September for constitutional change

Before the vote, the country’s health minister will draft legislation proposing unrestricted abortion access be made available to women who are up to 12 weeks pregnant, and in exceptional circumstances after.

An exact date for the referendum will be decided after it is debated in the Irish parliament.

‘Not black and white’

Campaigners have long called for the laws to be changed, and last year a special cross-party parliamentary committee and citizens assembly both recommended repealing the amendment.

“I know this will be a difficult decision for the Irish people to make,” Mr Varadkar said.

“I know it is a very personal and private issue and for most of us it is not a black-and-white issue, it is one that is grey – the balance between the rights of a pregnant woman and the foetus or unborn.”

Mr Varadkar, the country’s former health minister who trained as a doctor, acknowledged that thousands of women in the country travelled every year for terminations or took illegal pills ordered online at home.

He said the current law meant that abortions in Ireland were “unsafe, unregulated and illegal”.

“These journeys do not have to happen, and that can change, and that’s now in our hands,” he said.

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By BBC Dublin correspondent Shane Harrison

The Irish government’s preference is to hold the referendum in late May, during university term time, as it is expected that the majority of students will support the government.

If there is a delay, polling is then most likely to happen at the start of June, when many Irish students leave the island for the summer.

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Irish Health Minister Simon Harris has been working with officials in his department and the attorney general on the wording of the referendum, which is expected to be formally published at the beginning of March.

“It is very important to stress any legislation to amend constitution would remain subject to review,” said Mr Harris.

‘Issue not going away’

“The government does not intend to, or wish to, limit the power of our courts to interpret law. Anyone who wants any change to our regime, it is necessary to repeal the Eighth.

“This issue is not going away. It is time for the people of Ireland to have their say on that.”

In 2016, 3,265 women and girls gave Republic of Ireland addresses when accessing abortion services at clinics in England and Wales, according to UK Department of Health statistics.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) welcomed Monday’s announcement.

“Every pregnancy is different, every decision is deeply personal. Women and girls in Ireland deserve their dignity. They deserve the right to privacy, family and home,” said the group’s director Orla O’Connor.

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Abortion in the Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland currently has a near total ban on abortion.

Terminations are not permitted in cases of rape or incest, or when there is a foetal abnormality and thousands of women travel abroad for a termination every year.

The eighth amendment to the Republic’s constitution, introduced in 1983, “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn”.

However, there have been significant challenges and changes to the law in recent years.

A campaign to liberalise abortion gathered momentum in 2012, after Indian woman Savita Halappanavar died in a Galway hospital after she was refused an abortion during a miscarriage.

Savita HalappanavarImage copyrightTHE IRISH TIMES
Image captionSavita Halappanavar died after a miscarriage in University Hospital in Galway in October 2012

The following year, legislation was passed to legalise abortion when doctors deem that a woman’s life is at risk due to medical complications, or at risk of taking her life.

Twenty years before Mrs Halappanavar’s death, a 14-year-old rape victim was initially prevented from travelling to England to terminate her pregnancy.

It became known as the X Case, as the girl could not be named to protect her right to anonymity.

The 1992 ban on travel was later overturned by the Irish Supreme Court.

A referendum approved a further update to the constitution, stating that the eighth amendment did not restrict the freedom to travel to another state.