Exit polls in Ireland point to landslide abortion rights victory

The people of Ireland are set to liberalize its restrictive abortion laws by a landslide, exit polls suggested Friday, as voters demanded change.

Prime minister says he's 'quietly confident' high turnout is a good sign for liberalization

A pro-choice demonstrator clashes with an anti-abortion activist during a rally in Dublin ahead of the vote. Exit polls suggest laws in Ireland around abortion will be changing, though official results aren't yet available. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

The people of Ireland are set to liberalize its restrictive abortion laws by a landslide, exit polls suggested on Friday, as voters demanded change in what two decades ago was one of Europe's most socially conservative countries.

The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI exit poll suggested that voters in the once deeply Catholic nation had backed a referendum by a margin of 68 per cent to 32 per cent. A second exit poll from RTE/Behaviour & Attitudes suggested voters had backed the bid to relax laws by 69 per cent to 31 per cent.

Turnout could be one of the highest for a referendum, national broadcaster RTE reported, potentially topping the 61 per cent who backed gay marriage by a large margin in 2015 as voters queued outside polling stations throughout the day in the blistering sunshine.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who is in favour of change and has called the referendum a once-in-a-generation chance, said earlier on Friday that he was "quietly confident" that the high turnout was a good sign. Vote-counting begins early on Saturday, with the first indication of results expected mid-morning.

Voters were asked if they wish to scrap a 1983 amendment to the constitution that 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 is in danger.

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar casts his ballot in the referndum. He thinks a majority of voters will choose to liberalize abortion laws. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

If the Yes vote wins, the text of the Eighth Amendment will be changed to read: "Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancies."

Ireland legalized divorce by a razor-thin majority in 1995, but became the first country to adopt gay marriage by popular vote in a 2015 referendum. But 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.

"I think this issue is important because it's been 35 years since any person has had a choice to vote," said Sophie O'Gara, 28, who was voting Yes near Dublin's bustling Silicon Docks, home to some of the world's biggest technology firms. "So many women have travelled to England to take care of their family and health-care needs and I think it's a disgrace and it needs to change," she said, referring to women who travel for abortions.

Fierce campaign

The fiercely contested vote has divided political parties, seen the once-mighty church take a back seat, and become a test case for how global internet giants deal with social media advertising in political campaigns.

Unlike in 1983, when religion was front and centre and abortion was a taboo subject for most, the campaign was defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.

Nuns prepare to cast their ballots in the referendum, which has caused sharp divisions in the country. (Alex Fraser/Reuters)

"Yes" campaigners have argued that with over 3,000 women travelling 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.

Although not on the ballot paper, the "No" camp has seized on government plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the referendum is carried, calling it a human rights issue and a step too far for most voters.

"I think it's important that we protect the unborn babies, people don't care anymore about the dignity of human life. I've a family myself and I think it's really important," said John Devlin, a marketing worker in his 50s voting No near Dublin's city centre.

The Irish government's push to liberalize the laws is in contrast to the United States, where abortion has long been legal, but U.S. President Donald Trump backs stripping federal funding from women's health-care clinics that offer abortions.

Home to vote

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.

Garda Pat Mcllroy and presiding officer Nancy Sharkey carry a ballot box back to the boat to the mainland after collecting votes in Ireland's referendum on liberalizing abortion law, on Gola Island. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

Judith Taylor, a women and gender studies professor at the University of Toronto, was in Ireland in 1992 when the abortion rules were being challenged. Taylor told CBC's Carole MacNeil that she thinks this vote was "very, very poignant because of the young people's voices in it." 

Official turnout figures aren't yet available but the Irish Times reported that a large number of young people were reported to be casting ballots.

"Being able to get health-care locally, being able to make decisions with their doctors, this will be a fundamental difference," Taylor said.

People who voted No haven't lost their right to protest and lobby against abortion, Taylor said.

The official results in the vote are expected Saturday. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

"They can still ask people to consider carefully what they want to do with their bodies and what they want to do to their pregnancies — that isn't lost to them." 

Ahead of the vote, many people posted photos of themselves wearing sweatshirts bearing the "Repeal" slogan.

"Women and girls should not be made into health-care refugees when they are in a time of crisis," said Niamh Kelly, 27, who paid €800 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."

With files from CBC News