By Shaun Connolly, Political Correspondent
IRISH voters aged under 35 are overwhelmingly in favour of legalising abortion, pointing to a major change in the constitution within the next decade.
A dramatic split on the issue between older and younger people is revealed in an Irish Examiner/Lansdowne poll.
If a referendum was to be held now, the pro-life option would win by a margin of 47% to 36%. However, pro-choice appears to be the wave of the future, with those under 35 strongly in favour.
Almost half that age group, 49%, want women to be able to access terminations in the Republic. Just 32% of 18-24 year olds would oppose the move, and that rises slightly to 35% among 25-34 year olds.
After that, the situation effectively reverses itself with 48% against legalisation and 35% in favour.
Attitudes harden from then on with 56% of 50-64 year olds pro-life, as are 69% of over 65s. Men and women are evenly split between the two camps.
The issue also provokes a close result in the more affluent ABC1 social class where 43% are pro-choice and 42% against.
Pro-life attitudes dominated the views of 'blue collar' households, with 48% pro-life and 35% in favour of reform.
Labour's health spokeswoman Liz McManus said she would expect to see termination legalised in limited circumstances within the next 10 years, but not "abortion on demand".
"A decade is a long time in an Ireland that has changed so dramatically in recent years. There probably will be abortions carried out here in limited circumstances," she said.
"People don't like the fact that, yet again, we are dumping our problem on Britain. I am not surprised that young people feel so strongly on the issue as they are the ones directly affected by the situation.
"I think attitudes have changed enormously and people now feel much freer to talk about what's happening. This has been the hidden story for so many families," said the Labour deputy leader.
Fianna Fáil junior environment minister and pro-life supporter, Batt O'Keeffe, said he was surprised by the findings.
"I would not have expected it to be so strong in that age group, it does surprise me. This is a pretty dramatic result and shows that we are becoming a more liberated society," he said, adding that he hoped the law would not change.
Abortion has long proved to be one of the most contentious issues in Irish society. The constitution was amended in 1983 to "protect the right to life of the unborn".
The situation provoked national soul-searching in 1992 during the 'X case' when a 14-year-old rape victim was initially prevented by the High Court from travelling to Britain for an abortion. In March 2002, a constitutional amendment to resolve the position on travel and information was narrowly rejected.
Pro-choice groups say more than 100,000 Irish women have travelled to Britain for terminations since 1983.