May 25, 2018

Ireland has voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment of its constitution, two major exit polls are projecting. The vote, if confirmed by official results, would pave the way for the lifting of one of the strictest abortion laws in the world.

An Irish Times exit poll of about 4,000 voters by Ipsos/MRBI shows that 68% voted “Yes” to repealing the Eighth Amendment, which guarantees a mother and her unborn fetus “an equal right to life.” An estimated 32% said “No,” according to the poll. RTE’s exit poll showed a similar split on the vote, with an estimated 69.4% voting “Yes” and 30.6% voting “No,” according to the exit poll.

Thousands of Irish citizens living overseas traveled home to vote in the referendum, which did not have a postal vote option. More than 100,000 people were added to the voting register in the run-up to the vote, compared to 65,000 new entries before the country’s 2015 referendum which legalized same-sex marriage.

Abortion is currently only legal in Ireland in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, and remains illegal in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormality. The Eighth Amendment had prevented any further relaxation of the ban.

If the results are confirmed, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar will now likely introduce legislation to allow abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and further in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.

Varadkar, who supported the Yes campaign, said on Thursday that the referendum, announced in September 2017, was a “once in a generation decision” and was unlikely to be re-run for another 35 years.

Opinion polls in the run up to the vote had shown a majority for the “Yes” campaign, but high numbers of undecided voters lead many to believe the result would be far closer than the same-sex marriage referendum, which passed with a 62% majority. Ireland has long been one of Europe’s most socially conservative countries, and contraception was only fully legalized in 1985, while divorce was banned until 1995. The declining influence of the Catholic Church, which was instrumental in seeing the Eighth Amendment introduced via referendum in 1983, is one explanation for today’s result.

Campaigning by pro- and anti-abortion groups has ramped up in recent weeks, dominating the news cycle in Ireland.

Throughout the campaign, supporters of the “Yes” side argued that the ban does not prevent abortions but forces women to travel to the U.K. – at an average rate of nine a day – to terminate unwanted pregnancies They also pointed out that no one under the age of 50 had had the opportunity to vote on abortion law, despite it remaining a high profile issue in public debate for decades, particularly since the 2012 case of Savita Halappanavar, who died from sepsis after doctors in a Galway hospital refused to terminate her pregnancy when she was miscarrying.

Anti-abortion activists on the ‘No’ side said the Eighth Amendment had saved thousands of lives and focused in particular on preventing the abortion of fetuses with genetic abnormalities. Disability rights campaigners and others, including Varadkar, criticized the ‘No’ side’s use of images of children with Down Syndrome on posters as “wrong”.

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