DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland has voted by a landslide to liberalize some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws in what its prime minister described as the culmination of a “quiet revolution” in what was one of Europe’s most socially conservative countries.
Voters in the once deeply Catholic nation were estimated to have backed the change by more than two-to-one, according to two exit polls released on Friday evening, and the government plans to bring in legislation by the end of the year.
“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.
After official results began to be announced on Saturday, politicians on both sides agreed that the referendum had passed by a large margin. Final results were due later on Saturday.
(Abortion policies worldwide: tmsnrt.rs/2Lu7DM7)
“The public have spoken. The result appears to be resounding … in favor of repealing the 8th Amendment” constitutional ban on abortion, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who campaigned for repeal, told journalists in Dublin.
“What we see is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland over the last couple of decades,” said Varadkar, who became the country’s first openly gay prime minister last year.
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.
“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,” said Colm O’Riain, a 44-year-old teacher with his son Ruarai, who was born 14 weeks premature in November.
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.
“What Irish voters did yesterday is a tragedy of historic proportions,” Save The 8th said. “However, a wrong does not become a right simply because a majority support it.”
Voters were asked if they wish to scrap the amendment, 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.
The country’s largest newspaper, the Irish Independent described the result as “a massive moment in Ireland’s social history”.
Campaigners for change, wearing “Repeal” jumpers and “Yes” badges, gathered at the main Dublin count center, many in tears and hugging each other.
“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.
Reform in Ireland also raised the prospect that women in Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal, may start traveling south of the border.
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.
An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI exit poll suggested that voters backed change by 68 percent to 32 percent and indicated majorities in all age groups under 65 voted for change, including almost nine in every 10 voters under the age of 24.
“It’s possible even that we could carry every constituency in the country; men and women; almost every age group and every social class,” Varadkar said. “And that indicates to me that we are a country that is not divided.”
Save The 8th spokesman McGuirk appealed for tolerance and respect from “those who find themselves in the majority now”.
The vote to repeal the ban was far higher than any opinion poll in the run up to the vote.
Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said he believed a middle ground of around 40 percent of voters had decided en masse to allow women and doctors rather than lawmakers and lawyers to decide whether a termination was justified.
The vote divided political parties, saw the once-mighty Catholic 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.
Varadkar said he planned to enact the legislation before the end of the year.
Jim Wells, a member of Northern Ireland’s socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party, said that after the vote Northern Ireland and Malta were the only parts of Europe where the unborn child was properly protected.
“It is inevitable that the abortion industry based in Great Britain will set up clinics in border towns,” he said.
Additional reporting by Graham Fahy in Dublin; Amanda Ferguson in Belfast and Michael Holden in London; Editing by Alison Williams