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Voters narrowly reject amendment to clarify Ireland's strict but confused abortion laws

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) _ Voters have narrowly rejected a proposed amendment to Ireland's strict anti-abortion laws, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said Thursday, dealing a significant defeat to his own government and to Catholic Church leaders.

The Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill was rejected on an approximately 51 percent ``no'' vote nationwide, according to results from 40 of 41 constituencies compiled by RTE, the Irish state-run broadcasting service.

But Ahern, in a news conference outside his Dublin office, conceded defeat, saying his ``honest and genuine attempt'' to strengthen abortion laws ``has been narrowly defeated.''

``I'm disappointed, but I'm a democrat,'' Ahern added.

Opposition ran high in urban areas, particularly the cosmopolitan capital, where a third of Ireland's population lives. This barely overcame strong support for the measure in conservative rural areas, where the Catholic Church retains considerable influence over opinion.

Overall about 42 percent of nearly 3 million registered voters cast a ballot in Wednesday's vote, according to RTE statisticians, but turnout was considerably higher in most urban areas.

Ahern, who faces re-election within the next few months, and the Catholic hierarchy had led the campaign to approve the amendment.

Confusion about the impact of the amendment was evident among anti-abortion activists, some of whom supported the amendment while others warned it wasn't restrictive enough.

The defeated amendment would have confirmed the legality of abortions carried out to save the lives of pregnant women, but it would have excluded a pregnant woman's threat to commit suicide from that category. Ahern and church leaders had argued that women would falsely threaten to kill themselves in order to receive abortions.

The measure's rejection means lawmakers will face renewed pressure to pass legislation in line with a landmark 1992 judgment by the Supreme Court, Ireland's highest legal authority.

In 1983, voters introduced an anti-abortion amendment into the constitution that said pregnant women and the unborn should have their equal right to life protected.

Nine years later the Supreme Court ruled that, given this equal right to life, abortions should be legalized in Ireland in instances where continued pregnancy could kill a woman _ including from her own threats to commit suicide _ because otherwise both mother and unborn child would die.

The Supreme Court made its verdict in relation to the case of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by a family friend but barred by the government of the day from traveling to England for an abortion. The girl, who had been diagnosed as suicidal because of the restriction, ultimately suffered a miscarriage.

Any new abortion legislation will depend on which coalition of parties takes power this summer. Ahern's government must be dissolved for a general election by June.

For Ahern, Thursday's defeat compounded the embarrassment he suffered last year, when voters rejected another government-backed referendum on supporting the European Union's latest treaty. He became the first prime minister in Irish history to lose two referendum campaigns, with voters complaining in both cases of being confused by unnecessarily complex proposals.

Ireland is unique within the 15-nation EU in having a written constitution that requires many sensitive matters, from abortion law to questions of national sovereignty, to be approved by public vote.

The Irish people have twice before voted on abortion. In 1983, the ``right to life'' amendment they approved barred politicians from ever broadly legalizing abortion. In 1992, they legalized the right of Irish women to receive information on foreign abortion services and to travel overseas to receive them.

An estimated 7,000 Irish woman had their pregnancies terminated last year in England, where abortion was legalized in 1967. A recent Trinity College Dublin study found that nearly one in 10 Irish pregnancies ends in an English abortion clinic.
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