DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's Labour Party, junior partner in Prime Minister Enda Kenny's ruling coalition, promised on Monday to hold a referendum to boost access to abortion if voters return it to government this month.
But abortion is so divisive that Labour would likely face opposition from Kenny's Fine Gael party, which is wary of tackling an issue that could alienate conservative voters, despite a sharp drop in the Roman Catholic Church's influence.
The country's complete ban on terminating a pregnancy was lifted in 2013 after large street protests from both sides of the debate. It is now allowed if a mother's life is in danger.
Ireland holds a general election on Feb. 26.
In its election manifesto published on Monday, the center-left Labour Party promised a referendum to remove the article in the Irish constitution that gives the unborn child an equal right to life to that of its mother.
It said it would then pass legislation to allow abortion in the event of rape or incest or when doctors deem that the fetus has no chance of survival.
"If Labour is in government, we will ensure that there is a referendum," Labour leader Joan Burton told journalists, calling it one of three core promises in the party's manifesto.
Labour and Fine Gael remain short of the support needed to secure re-election, recent polls have suggested, but abortion is a potent issue that could rally Labour's liberal electorate.
Over 75 percent of Irish voters support abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the fetus would not survive, a poll in January indicated. But only 41 percent said they would support abortion on demand, the Newstalk/Red C poll said.
To hold the referendum, Labour would have to overcome opposition in Fine Gael, which expelled five members of parliament after they defied the leadership to oppose the 2013 referendum.
To avoid a divisive debate in the party, Kenny promised to hold a citizens' convention to discuss the issue and allow party members a free vote on its recommendations.
Burton said she was "very confident" she could convince the Fine Gael party to agree to a vote, pointing to Labour's success in legalizing same-sex marriage despite early unease among some Fine Gael voters.
The main opposition parties are divided, with the center-right Fianna Fail ruling out a vote on abortion if it is part of the next government, while left-wing nationalists Sinn Fein have said they will hold a referendum.
The 2013 abortion legislation was adopted following the death of a woman who was not allowed to abort her dying fetus, a controversy that made international headlines, reopening a decades-long debate.
Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Tom Heneghan