Dublin: Ireland appears to have moved away from its conservative Roman Catholic roots and embraced a more liberal viewpoint as two major exit polls on Friday predicted voters had repealed a constitutional ban on abortion.
The RTE television and Irish Times exit polls are only predictions, with official tallies due Saturday afternoon, local time, but both exit polls suggested an overwhelming victory for abortion rights activists seeking a "yes" vote to change the constitution.
A man walks past a mural showing Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist who had sought and been denied an abortion before she died after a miscarriage in a Galway hospital.
Catherine Murphy, co-leader of the small Social Democrats party, said the polls strongly indicated "voters have taken on board the clear message that the constitutional ban harms women" and must be removed from the constitution.
"Not the official result, but it's looking good!," Irish Culture Minister Josepha Madigan, co-ordinator for Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's governing party's campaign for a Yes vote, said on Twitter.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan called it "another big step out of our dark past."
If the numbers hold up, the victory will be of a larger magnitude than Yes activists had believed possible. It would then fall to Parliament to establish new laws governing abortions.
Ireland's referendum represented a battle for the very soul of a traditionally conservative nation that has seen a wave of liberalisation in recent years.
The country's leaders supported a Yes vote, an outcome that would repeal a 1983 constitutional amendment requiring authorities to treat a fetus and its mother as equals under the law. They called it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to liberalise some of Europe's strictest abortion rules.
Voters went to the polls after a campaign that aroused deep emotions on both sides. For advocates of repeal, a repeal vote would be a landmark in Irish women's fight for equality and the right to control their own bodies. For opponents, it would be a betrayal of Ireland's commitment to protect the unborn.
The vote also is a key indicator of Ireland's trajectory, three years after the country voted to allow same-sex marriages and a year after its first openly gay Prime Minister took office.
The newspaper exit poll indicated overwhelming support for change. The survey by pollster Ipsos-MRBI said 68 per cent of voters backed repeal of the ban and 32 per cent opposed it. The pollster said it interviewed some 4000 people and the survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. The RTE poll used similar methods and projected the Yes vote to be nearly 70 per cent.
The voting took place on a day that was sunny throughout much of Ireland, which may have bolstered turnout.
A woman and child leave a polling station after casting her vote in the referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, in Knock.
Theresa Sweeney, a repeal supporter, was one of the first to arrive at a church polling station in Dublin.
"I feel like I've waited all of my adult life to have a say on this," she said.
Emma Leahy said her Yes vote comes from her firm belief that everyone should be able to make their own choice when it comes to abortion.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar waits to cast his vote at a polling station.
The contested amendment requires authorities to equally protect the right to life of a mother and that of a fetus, from the moment of conception. That effectively bans all abortions in Ireland, except in cases when the woman's life is at risk. Having an illegal abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and several thousand Irish women travel each year to get abortions in neighbouring Britain.
If the amendment is removed and the issue moves to Parliament, the government proposes that terminations be allowed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Later abortions would be allowed in special cases.
Thousands of Irish people abroad travelled home to take part in the historic referendum, and supporters of repeal gathered at Dublin Airport to give arrivals an ecstatic welcome.
Some activists held a placard reading "Thank you for making the journey so other women don't have to" – a reference to the way Irish women seeking abortions abroad.
Garda police officer Pat McIlroy and Nancy Sharkey, Presiding Officer for Gola Island, arrive on the island off the coast of Donegal with a ballot box on Thursday.
Tara Flynn, who 11 years ago flew to the Netherlands for an abortion, said she planned to vote "yes" to make sure future generations of women don't endure what she did, with feelings of isolation and shame.
She said her vote would be one for solidarity and compassion, "a vote to say, I don't send you away anymore."
Videos shared on social media showed scores of voters arriving home at Irish airports from abroad. Ireland does not allow expatriates to vote via post or in embassies but those away for less than 18 months remain on the electoral roll.
As with the gay marriage referendum, those using the #hometovote hashtag on Twitter appeared overwhelmingly to back change. Many posted photos of themselves wearing sweatshirts bearing the "Repeal" slogan.
"Women and girls should not be made into healthcare refugees when they are in a time of crisis," said Niamh Kelly, 27, who paid €800 ($1230) and travelled 20 hours to return home from Hanoi where she works as an English teacher.
"This is a once in a lifetime generation chance to lift the culture of shame that surrounds this issue so it was really important to me to be part of that."
Campaigning was not allowed Friday, but Dublin was still filled with signs and banners urging citizens to vote "yes" or "no." Many of the anti-abortion signs showed photographs of fetuses.
Exit polls in Ireland look promising for the ‘Yes’ campaign.
Voting had already taken place on Ireland's remote islands so that paper ballots could be taken to the mainland and counted in time.
Letters to the editor published Friday in the Irish Independent newspaper contained several emotional arguments urging voters to reject the repeal movement.
"If we vote 'yes' every unborn, wanted and unwanted, will have zero rights," wrote Frances Kelleher, from Killarney. "I do not believe the smart people of Ireland want this unrestricted, abortion-on-demand bill.
No social issue has divided its 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.
Yet the exit polls showed overwhelming majorities in all age groups under 65 voted for change, including almost nine in every 10 voters under the age of 24.
It suggested the highest Yes vote was in Dublin, where 77 percent of voters were in favour, but there was no sharp urban/rural divide as in previous referendums on the subject, with all provincial areas backing the proposals.
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