'Abortion is a reality for Irish women': Health minister makes plea amid referendum debate

Darren McCaffrey, Ireland correspondent in Roscommon

Ireland's health minister has said abortion is already "a reality for Irish women" who are having to travel abroad to terminate their pregnancies.

Simon Harris told Sky News: "Every day in our country, nine Irish women are going to the UK to access termination.

"And every day in our country at least three women are taking the medical abortion pill without supervision.

"So abortion is a reality for Irish women, for Irish women going abroad, this debate is how to deal with that reality."

But with only two days of campaigning left in Ireland's abortion referendum, No campaigners insist the changes proposed by the government are too extreme.

Doctor and anti-abortion campaigner Andrew O'Regan argued: "What the government are saying is that a GP would prescribe a chemical to end the life of one of our patients for any reason.

"This is far more extreme than what they have for example in Britain."

There has been a big surge in voter registration ahead of Ireland's referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, which effectively makes abortion illegal.

If people vote to repeal it, the Irish government is proposing that women could access termination within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

After that period, abortions will only be allowed until the 24th week of pregnancy if there is a risk to a woman's life, or a risk of serious harm to the physical or mental health of a woman.

Terminations would also be permitted in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Under the current law, an unborn child has the same right to life as the mother with the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion 14 years in prison.

But for Ireland it is an issue dividing generations, counties and families.

A group of diners I met in Swords, north Dublin, like many in the capital want to see change.

One business owner told me: "I had this conversation last night with my husband, men should not have a choice over a woman's body - she should be able to make that decision herself."

But a two-hour drive away in Roscommon, in the rural west of Ireland, the only county to vote against equal marriage, a former nurse explained why she was voting No.

"I nursed in England many years ago, I used to work in an operating theatre and there was a lot of abortions there," she said.

"I didn't believe in abortions but I used to have to clean up the utensils afterwards, little babies dead and I wouldn't like to see that here."

Emotive cases are being made by both sides.

And with every poll claiming it will be close, the next couple of campaign days are crucial.