More than two-thirds of voters backed repealing Irelands strict abortion ban on Friday, according to two separate exit polls.
While the official tally wont be completed until Saturday, Ireland is poised to align its abortion laws with the European mainstream. It will mark the second major progressive step by Irish voters in recent years, following the referendum to allow same-sex marriage in 2015.
An exit poll by Ipsos/MRBI conducted for the Irish Times, which surveyed more than 4,500 voters at 160 polling locations across Ireland, recorded 68 percent support for changing abortion laws and 32 percent of voters opposed, with a reported margin of error of 1.2 percentage points. A second exit poll from broadcaster RTÉ with Behaviour & Attitudes of more than 3,800 voters recorded 69.4 percent support and 30.6 percent against.
“Thank you to everyone who voted today. Democracy in action. Its looking like we will make history tomorrow…” tweeted Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who backed repealing the ban.
The campaign placed a spotlight on cultural attitudes in the historically Catholic nation, and its been a test for digital platforms including Google and Facebook, which have worked to combat foreign attempts to sway the vote with online ads.
“A nation transformed. If vindicated in the final result, the exit polls suggest that Ireland has undertaken a profound transformation from a state beholden to a particular religious domination to a modern cosmopolitan reality,” tweeted Ben Tonra, professor of international relations at the UCD School of Politics and International Relations. “It vindicates a generations ambition. Alongside the marriage equality referendum, it redefines modern Ireland.”
“Alongside the marriage equality referendum, it redefines modern Ireland” — Ben Tonra, professor of international relations
“Its a good day, Ireland is finally moving forward with the rest of the world,” said Paul Keogh, a 41-year-old maintenance technician earlier on Friday outside a polling station in Dublin. “I would see it as a historic moment. I wasnt always convinced, I just think down through the years the Catholic Church had too much of a say.”
The question on the ballot essentially asked voters whether to repeal the Irish constitutions eighth amendment — which gives mother and the unborn an equal right to life — and give the parliament new responsibilities to legislate on abortion.
“The 8th did not create an unborn childs right to life — it merely acknowledged it. The right exists, independent of what a majority says,” tweeted John McGuirk, spokesman for the anti-abortion campaign Save the 8th. “That said, with a result of that magnitude, clearly there was very little to be done.”
The government plans to introduce legislation to allow abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, following a 72-hour waiting period. Beyond that point, pregnancies could be terminated in cases such as rape, incest or fatal birth defects, according to a draft bill, in line with the recommendations of a cross-party committee in the Irish parliament.
Although Varadkar led the repeal campaign, opposition leader Micheál Martin also risked a conservative backlash within his Fianna Fáil party after he swung behind legalizing abortion.
— Ipsos MRBI (@IpsosMRBI) May 25, 2018
Polls closed at 10 p.m. in Ireland, but formal counting wont begin until 9 a.m. local time Saturday. Constituencies will send their tallies to the Central Count Centre in Dublin, to be posted live at Referendum.ie. The final count isnt likely to be announced before late afternoon, officials said.
Following an often polarized debate, Fridays exit polls showed a striking unity: Anticipated gaps between men and women, young and old, urban and rural largely failed to materialize.
In the RTÉ poll, for example, around 72 percent of women voted to repeal, as did nearly 66 percent of men. Every region of the country saw majorities saying they voted for repeal, and the Yes vote was 72 percent in urban areas, 63 percent in rural sections.
Young adults showed the most support for repeal, with more than eight in 10 people under 34 saying they voted for it. Yet the only age cohort the poll found voting No was those over 65, with nearly 59 percent saying they voted to retain the abortion ban.
The exit poll findings show Ireland is “no longer a conservative society,” said Anne Rabbitte, a Fianna Fáil parliamentarian who opposed repeal but voted to give Irish voters the final say by holding a referendum.
“We might be a traditional society, but not a conservative,” she added in an interview with RTÉ on Saturday morning.
Proponents for repeal argued Irelands existing laws punish women, and they noted several thousand Irish women already travel to Britain each year for abortions while others order illegal pills online. Cases such as the 2012 death of 31-year-old Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar remained a rallying cry to remove the abortion ban, which has been in place since 1983.
“Im not voting for abortion, Im voting for the repeal of this amendment and I think they get confused,” said a 71-year-old female voter who preferred to remain anonymous. “Why should women have to go to England to get an abortion?”
The last polls ahead of the vote predicted a win for repeal, although they also showed the anti-abortion side gained ground in the final weeks. Some undecided voters said that while they felt Irelands existing laws are too strict, the governments 12-week proposal goes too far.
The anti-abortion side argued that repealing the ban would lead to “abortion on demand”
“I voted No myself … I was going to vote Yes but I just think the legislation is just far too broad. If the government came up with something better I would have voted Yes,” said Patrick, a 21-year-old student who declined to give his full name, after voting in Dublin on Friday.
The anti-abortion side argued that repealing the ban would lead to “abortion on demand,” and highlighted recognizable signs of life within 12-week old fetuses. Campaigners against repeal, which included right-wing and Catholic groups, cast their effort as a rebellion from the Irish heartlands against a liberal elite, in the style of recent populist campaigns.
“I suppose Im one of the old hardy annuals, but I think the Yes side are voting for murder,” said one elderly man, who didnt want to be named, after casting his vote against the repeal.
Health Minister Simon Harris, a strong backer of repeal and author of the legislation that would introduce legal abortion, did not acknowledge the exit polls when he tweeted a smile emoji an hour after the polls closed Friday night.
“Will sleep tonight in the hope of waking up to a country that is more compassionate, more caring and more respectful. It has been an honour to be on this journey with you and to work #togetherforyes,” he tweeted. “See you all tomorrow!”
Sarah Wheaton reported from Brussels. Naomi OLeary reported from Dublin.