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    Irish health minister defends abortion ban referendum

    LONDON — Irish women are having abortions regardless of a near-total constitutional ban on terminating pregnancies, the country’s health minister said Tuesday in defense of a planned referendum that will ask voters whether the amendment should be repealed.

    Health Minister Simon Harris said on Ireland’s RTE television that he is beginning work on a proposed law that would be submitted to Parliament if the May referendum removes the constitutional ban. The legislation would allow abortions during the first trimester, he said.

    ‘‘Whether the Eighth Amendment is in our Constitution, or indeed not in our Constitution, abortion is a reality for Irish women,’’ Harris said. ‘‘I cannot close my eyes and block my ears to the fact that 3,265 of our citizens travelled to the UK in 2016’’ for abortions.

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    Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced Monday that the referendum to be held in late May will ask voters if they want to keep the antiabortion amendment or repeal it so that Parliament can consider new legislation. The replacement law would be put forward only if voters support repeal.

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    The amendment enacted by referendum in 1983 makes predominantly Roman Catholic Ireland the most restrictive country in Europe on abortion. It commits authorities to defend equally ‘‘the right to life of the unborn’’ and ‘‘the equal right to life of the mother.’’ Abortion is legal only when a woman’s life is in danger.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS