“I don’t believe we can persist with a situation whereby women in crisis are risking their lives through the use of unregulated medicines,” Varadkar, a qualified doctor, said when he announced the referendum during a press conference in Dublin on 29 January.
“I believe this is a decision about whether we want to continue to stigmatise and criminalise our sisters, our coworkers and our friends.”
Abortion is a highly sensitive issue Ireland, a traditionally staunchly Catholic country.
The referendum in May will not be on a question on whether abortion should be legalised but on whether the eighth amendment to the constitution, which “recognises the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child” should be repealed.
The amendment dates back to 1983 when it was approved by another referendum.
Jail terms up to 14 years
Critics say that it only resulted in a tightening of Ireland's already strict anti-abortion laws, criminalising abortion with jail terms up to 14 years. Women were forced to find other ways to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
“Women have travelled to the UK,” says Linda Kavanagh, a spokesperson for Ireland's Abortion Rights Campaign.
“The UK has had abortion access since 1967, so women traveled to the UK to get abortion access that they can’t get in Ireland. But it is such a costly procedure. The procedure itself costs about 800, even up to 2,000 euros, and then you have to travel, get childcare, get time off work, and it can be a very lonely experience.’
The use of abortion pills purchased online is also treated as a crime, Kavanagh points out.
“The reality is that this part of the constitution never stopped abortion, it just made it less safe,” she says. "It made us exiled women. It stigmatised abortion. There’s a lot of shame involved. But Ireland is moving away from its dark history of trying to control women in Ireland."
'Extreme and cruel'
Anti-abortion campaigners take the opposite view.
“This proposal is extreme and cruel,” says Niamh Uí Bhriain, spokesperson for the Save The Age pro-Life campaign
Abortion "without any reason" would be allowed up to the 12th week of pregnancy and "right up till birth on vague health grounds", she says.
“I think when people realise that reality, they are going to vote against it. There is a very pro-life culture here in Ireland. You can see already in the polls that support for repeal is slipping quite badly, it is only 51 percent according to the latest polls."
Uí Bhriain says her campaign will go full force and she expects the proposal to be defeated in May.
Church influence waning
But the vote can go either way.
“It is a question of generation and there’s the rural and urban divide as well, which is significant,” says Edward Arnold, a professor at Trinity College in Dublin.
“In the rural communities there is a higher incidence of reticence to repeal than in the urban areas.”
But he added that the influence of the Catholic Church, the traditional pillar of the anti-abortion movement, is waning, “as a result of sex scandals between priests and their parishioners and the inaction of the church or parishes to deal with these events”.
This loss of leverage may just tip the balance in favour of those who are pro-choice when it comes to abortion.