Ireland votes overwhelmingly to repeal country's abortion ban

Final results from a historic referendum show that Irish voters have overwhelmingly supported repealing their country's constitutional ban on abortions and having Parliament enact new legislation.

Ireland's PM, who campaigned to repeal the laws, called the vote a culmination of a 'quiet revolution'

A 'yes' supporter breaks down in tears as the results of the Irish referendum on the country's abortion laws is announced at Dublin Castle on Saturday. More than 66 per cent of voters in Ireland voted in favour of overturning the ban on abortion. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Final results from a historic referendum show that Irish voters have overwhelmingly voted to repeal the country's constitutional ban on abortion.

Elections official Barry Ryan said more than 1.4 million voters — or 66 per cent of those who cast valid ballots — favoured repealing the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution, while roughly 724,000 wanted to keep the abortion ban in place.

The outcome was seen as a historic victory for women's rights in the traditionally Catholic country. The size of the win exceeded expectations and will make it much easier for Irish women to obtain abortions legally for the first time.

It will also make it easier for the government to claim a mandate for more liberal laws when the divisive issue goes to Parliament later this year.

The vote will remove a 1983 amendment that required Irish authorities to defend the lives of a woman and a fetus equally on almost all abortions. That forced women seeking to terminate pregnancies to go abroad, bear children conceived through rape or incest or take illegal measures at home.

As the final tally was announced, crowds in the ancient courtyard of Dublin Castle began chanting "Savita! Savita!" in honour of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died of sepsis during a protracted miscarriage after being denied an abortion at a Galway hospital in 2012.

Ireland has voted in favour of overturning the abortion ban by 66.4 per cent to 33.6 per cent which is a 'resounding' victory for the yes campaign. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called the result the culmination of a "quiet revolution."

"The people have spoken," said Varadkar, a medical doctor who campaigned for repeal in Friday's historic referendum. "The people have said that we want a modern constitution for a modern country, that we trust women and we respect them to make the right decision and the right choices about their health care."

Varadkar said the large margin of victory will give his government a greater mandate when drafting abortion legislation that will be submitted for parliamentary approval in a matter of months.

Voters were asked whether they wanted to keep or repeal the eighth amendment to Ireland's constitution, which requires authorities to treat a fetus and its mother as equals under the law from the moment of conception. It outlawed all abortions until 2014, when the procedure started being allowed in rare cases when a woman's life was in danger.

"Under the Eighth Amendment, the only thing we could say to women in this country was 'Take a flight or take a boat,"' Health Minister Simon Harris told Irish broadcaster RTE. "And now the country is saying, 'No, take our hands, we want to support you."'

Some called for the new abortion legislation to be named, "Savita's law." Her father, Andanappa Yalagi, said he has "no words" to express his gratitude for Ireland's "yes" vote.

"We've got justice for Savita," he told the Hindustan Times. "What happened to her will not happen to any other family."

It is not yet clear how hard the soundly defeated "no" forces will fight for restrictive laws in Parliament in light of the overwhelming appetite for reform.

'Monumental day'

Campaigners who have fought for more than three decades to remove the eighth amendment hailed the referendum vote as a major breakthrough for the largely Catholic nation.

"This is a monumental day for women in Ireland," said Orla O'Connor, co-director of the Together for Yes group. "This is about women taking their rightful place in Irish society, finally."

The vote is a "rejection of an Ireland that treated women as second-class citizens," she said. "This is about women's equality and this day brings massive change, monumental change for women in Ireland, and there is no going back."

Women in Dublin celebrate as the results of Friday's referendum as votes were tallied on Saturday. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Opponents concede defeat

Opponents of the repeal movement had conceded defeat earlier.

John McGuirk, spokesperson for the Save the 8th group, said Saturday that many Irish citizens will not recognize the country they are waking up in. The group said on its website that Irish voters have created a "tragedy of historic proportions," but McGuirk said the vote must be respected.

"You can still passionately believe that the decision of the people is wrong, as I happen to do, and accept it," he said.

Exit polls from the Irish Times and national broadcaster RTE had suggested a win for those hoping to repeal the eighth amendment.

The outcome was seen as a historic victory for women's rights in the traditionally Catholic country. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

The RTE poll indicated that about 72 per cent of women voted "yes" along with about 66 per cent of men. The strongest backing came from younger voters — the exit poll said the only age group in which a majority voted "no" were voters who are 65 or older.

Surprisingly, the poll also suggests that supporters of more liberal abortion laws may have triumphed throughout the country, not just in the cosmopolitan capital, Dublin, where a strong youth vote had been anticipated.

Ireland's Parliament will be charged with coming up with new abortion laws in the coming months. The government proposes to allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with later terminations allowed in some cases.

Katherine Zappone, the country's minister for children and youth affairs, said she is confident new abortion legislation can be approved by Parliament and put in place before the end of the year.

"I feel very emotional," she said. "I'm especially grateful to the women of Ireland who came forward to provide their personal testimony about the hard times that they endured, the stress and the trauma that they experienced because of the eighth amendment."