By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - The leader of Ireland's main opposition party said on Thursday that he had changed his views on Ireland's strict abortion laws and would support their removal, in a potentially significant intervention ahead of a referendum in the coming months.
The government has pledged to hold the plebiscite as soon as May to seek a loosening of the laws in once stridently Catholic Ireland, where a complete ban was only lifted in 2013 to allow terminations in cases where the mother's life was in danger.
A parliamentary committee last month recommended that the state should instead legislate to allow terminations with no restrictions up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy, a more liberal position than some had anticipated.
While the government is still considering the committee's report before finalizing a date for the vote, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin backed its proposals - against the majority of those from his party who have so far declared their preference.
"Over the years I have been on the record as being against a significant change in our abortion laws. I have done so from a belief that this was the most effective way of affirming the importance of the unborn. However I believe we each have a duty to be willing to question our own views," Martin said.
"If we are sincere in our compassion for women and if we are sincere in respecting their choices then we must act. I believe the case for change is justified by the full range of evidence available to us, and I will vote for this change."
Martin was speaking during a two-day parliamentary debate that demonstrated the contrasting views in Ireland over an issue that has divided the country for more than a generation. Some lawmakers were close to tears as they spoke.
Martin was only the 10th member of his party to publicly back repealing the eighth amendment of the constitution, which enshrines an equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child, according to an Irish Times tracking poll.
That compared to 26 against, with another 22 undecided. However across the two houses of parliament, lawmakers who have stated a preference favor removing the amendment by a margin of more than two to one.
With a traditionally strong rural vote, Fianna Fail are considered a more conservative party than Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's fellow centre-right Fine Gael and party members voted against changing the laws at its conference last year.
Varadkar has yet to state his position but he has previously said that Ireland's abortion laws are too restrictive. Should he back the committee's recommendations, all party leaders would be campaigning for a significant change to the laws.
While opinion polls show a large majority of voters want some change, little polling has been done so far on whether terminations with no restrictions should be allowed for up to 12 weeks.
The Life Institute, an anti-abortion group, said it believed Martin's position would go too far for the majority of the public.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Hugh Lawson)