DUBLIN - Thousands of demonstrators marched in Dublin on Saturday in favour of liberalising Ireland's tight abortion laws ahead of a planned referendum on the fiercely-debated issue.

Protesters chanted, "My body, my choice" and waved placards reading "Not the church, not the state, women should decide their fate" as they headed through the capital towards the parliament. Linda Kavanagh, a spokeswoman from the Abortion Rights Campaign which organised the rally, told AFP: "The message today is 'time to act' because we've waited for a long time for a change.

"We want full repeal. We can't support exceptions and only a hundred people allowed to get access to abortion."

Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland and in 1983 an eighth amendment was added to the constitution after a referendum, giving equal rights to the life of the unborn child and the mother.

The law was changed three decades later to allow terminations when the mother's life is at risk, following public outrage at the death of a pregnant woman in 2012 who was refused an abortion.

In the face of mounting public pressure, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Tuesday announced plans for a referendum on the issue to be held in May or June 2018, ahead of a visit by Pope Francis in August.

As the rally began, Keishia Taylor, a spokeswoman for the organisation ROSA (For Reproductive Rights, Against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity), told AFP: "I think today is gonna be a huge turnout, a turning point. Ireland is still deeply divided over abortion.

A recent poll by Ipsos/MRBI found 67 percent of respondents were opposed to abortion in general but that 76 percent were in favour of legalising it cases of rape. Varadkar, who trained as a doctor, has called the current laws "too restrictive".

Varadkar has said he would support abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities but is not supporting wider liberalisation.

Thousands of Irish women currently travel abroad for abortions every year, mainly to England.

A "March for Choice" took place in London outside the Irish embassy on Saturday.

The upcoming vote has rallied those on both sides of the debate, including activists seeking to keep the current legislation in place, who have said they will be leafleting in cities across Ireland.

"We have every reason to be proud of the eighth amendment which has saved tens of thousands of lives and has prevented the horrific human rights violations that abortion has caused in so many other countries," said Cora Sherlock, spokeswoman for the Pro-Life Campaign.

The Irish government has already sought to gauge public opinion, setting up a Citizens' Assembly which between November and April debated the eighth amendment.

Summing up their discussions, a majority of the 99 members recommended legalising abortion in a wide range of circumstances.

A parliamentary committee has also been examining the abortion law, but on both sides of the debate there is mistrust of officials' approach.

"I'm willing to bet that 90 percent of this country have never actually watched an abortion, the real graphic truth," said Tim Jackson, a marketing consultant who has demanded MPs watch footage of a termination.

In support of his cause, Jackson completed a 10-day hunger strike on Wednesday.

Although the pro-abortion camp reacted positively to the referendum announcement, there is suspicion that MPs continue to be heavily influenced by the church in the mainly Catholic country.

Unlike the referendum which saw Ireland vote in favour of same-sex marriage in May 2015, no politicians have yet taken a strong position calling for greater abortion access.

Irish media has reacted similarly, reluctant to take a bold stance on an issue which has divided Irish society.