Ireland is set to liberalize some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws after exit polls suggested a landslide vote for change in what was until recently one of Europe’s most socially conservative countries.
As the vote count began on Saturday morning, a spokesman for an anti-abortion umbrella group Save The 8th John McGuirk conceded there was “no prospect” the country’s abortion ban, imposed in a 1983 referendum, would be retained.
“It’s a Yes” read a banner front-page headline in the country’s best-selling newspaper, the Irish Independent after two exit polls suggested a landslide win, which it described it as “a massive moment in Ireland’s social history”.
An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI exit poll suggested that voters in the once deeply Catholic nation had on Friday backed change by 68 percent to 32 percent. An RTE/Behaviour & Attitudes survey put the margin at 69 percent to 31 percent.
If confirmed, the outcome will be the latest milestone on a path of change for a country which only legalized divorce by a razor thin majority in 1995 before becoming the first in the world to adopt gay marriage by popular vote three years ago.
Voters were asked if they wish to scrap the eighth amendment to the constitution, which gives an unborn child and its mother equal rights to life. The consequent prohibition on abortion was partly lifted in 2013 for cases where the mother’s life was in danger.
“It’s looking like we will make history tomorrow,” Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who was in favor of change, said on Friday night on Twitter.
Vote-counting began at 0800 GMT across the country on Saturday, with the first indication of official results expected mid-morning. Campaigners for change, wearing “Repeal” jumpers and “Yes” badges, gathered at the main Dublin count center, many in tears and hugging each other.
“It’s incredible. For all the years and years and years we’ve been trying to look after women and not been able to look after women, this means everything,” said Mary Higgins, obstetrician and Together For Yes campaigner.
“Yes” campaigners argued that with over 3,000 women traveling to Britain each year for terminations - a right enshrined in a 1992 referendum - and others ordering pills illegally online, abortion is already a reality in Ireland.
For the “No” campaign, the outcome was seen as a disaster. “What Irish voters did yesterday is a tragedy of historic proportions,” Save The 8th said in a statement. “However, a wrong does not become a right simply because a majority support it.”
No social issue has divided Ireland’s 4.8 million people as sharply as abortion, which was pushed up the political agenda by the death in 2012 of a 31-year-old Indian immigrant from a septic miscarriage after she was refused a termination.
Campaigners left flowers and candles at a large mural of the woman, Savita Halappanavar, in central Dublin.
The Irish Times exit poll showed overwhelming majorities in all age groups under 65 voted for change, including almost nine in every 10 voters under the age of 24.
The fiercely contested vote divided political parties, saw the once-mighty church take a back seat, with the campaign defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.
Although not on the ballot paper, the “No” camp sought to seize on government plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the referendum is carried, calling it a step too far for most voters.
“There is no prospect of the legislation not being passed” Save The 8th spokesman McGuirk told state broadcaster RTE, before appealing for tolerance and respect from “those who find themselves in the majority now”.
The result is likely to be followed by a battle in parliament on how exactly access to abortion will be increased.
“We now have to hold the government to what they have said, that they want to see a situation where abortion will be rare,” said leading anti-abortion campaigner Cora Sherlock.
Colm O’Riain, a 44-year-old school teacher who was at one of the main Dublin county centers with his infant son Ruarai who was born 14 weeks premature in November, was also looking to the future.
“For him (his son), it’s a different Ireland that we’re moving onto. It’s an Ireland that is more tolerant, more inclusive and where he can be whatever he wants without fear of recrimination,” he said.