40,000 march through Dublin for change to Republic's strict abortion laws
TENS of thousands of people have marched through Dublin demanding change to the Republic's strict abortion laws.
The annual March for Choice was the first major demonstration on the abortion issue since the government set an indicative timescale of early summer 2018 for a referendum on the section of the state's constitution that ensures tight legal restrictions on terminations.
Organisers estimated that 40,000 people took part.
Campaigners gathered at Parnell Square from lunchtime before making their way down the city's main thoroughfare, O'Connell Street. It took 45 minutes for the parade to pass the street's landmark Spire monument.
Chanting, singing and waving placards, demonstrators then marched along the River Liffey past the historic Custom House before crossing the water on their way towards the Houses of the Oireachtas.
A number of speakers then addressed huge crowds at Merrion Square.
Anti-abortion activists staged smaller scale events elsewhere in Dublin and in other cities but, unlike previous years, there was no evidence of direct counter-protests on the route of the march.
It was the sixth annual March for Choice organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC).
The existing Eighth Amendment of the constitution affords equal rights to pregnant women and unborn children. Added to the constitution in 1983, the amendment recognises an unborn child's right to life.
Terminations are currently only permitted when the life of the mother is at risk and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion in Ireland is 14 years in prison.
Thousands of Irish women travel to Britain every year to have a legal abortion.
Linda Kavanagh, spokeswoman for the ARC, warned the government that pro-choice campaigners would not accept a referendum that only offered a partial relaxation of the law.
"We got 40,000 people on the streets today," she told the Press Association.
"All of them are calling for broad access to abortion.
"That is part of the point we are trying to make today – we want broad access for abortion. We are not here because we want a bit of abortion. People who are behind this movement, this change in Ireland, want broad abortion access."
However, Dr Ruth Cullen, from the anti-abortion Pro Life Campaign (PRL) group, said any change to the Eighth Amendment should be opposed.
"We either protect every human life in our laws or we end up protecting no-one," she said.
"Once it is conceded that unborn babies are unworthy of legal protection in some situations, it is in effect saying that no unborn babies have any intrinsic value."
With the prospect of a referendum having been on the horizon for some time, pro-choice and anti-abortion advocates have already been long campaigning on the emotive issue.
Those efforts are intensifying now a timeframe has been set for the vote.
The march in Dublin is the first big set-piece since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced on Tuesday that a referendum will likely be called in May or June next year.
UK Labour Party MP Stella Creasy was among those who took part in the event.
Ms Creasy was a vocal campaigner for the NHS in England to offer free abortions to women travelling from Northern Ireland - a region that also has strict laws on terminations
A pro-choice rally was also staged outside the Irish Embassy in London on Saturday, with campaigners highlighting the numbers of Irish women who have travelled to Britain for an abortion in the last three decades.
A parliamentary body has been established in Dublin to advise on the wording for the referendum.
The Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution is considering a report from Judge Mary Laffoy, who chaired a specially-designed Citizens Assembly of 99 people who deliberated and voted on the issue.
The assembly called for article 40.3.3, which was altered under the Eighth Amendment, to be removed from the Constitution.
It said it should be replaced by a provision which placed the onus on politicians to pass laws on termination of pregnancy, rights of the unborn and pregnant women's rights.