DUBLIN, Ireland (UPDATED) – Ireland was set to liberalize some of Europe's strictest abortion laws in a landslide referendum vote in this mainly Catholic country that Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called on Saturday, May 26, the "culmination of a quiet revolution".
The proposal to repeal the constitutional ban on terminations was predicted to win by around a two-thirds majority, according to partial counts reported so far.
In Galway East, the first of 40 constituencies to declare a result, the vote was 60 percent in favor.
An exit poll of 4,000 voters for The Irish Times newspaper put the pro-choice camp ahead by 68 percent to 32 percent, while a second survey of 3,800 voters by national broadcaster RTE put the margin at 69 percent to 31 percent.
"What we've seen today is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years," Varadkar told RTE.
"The people have said that we want a modern constitution for a modern country, that we trust women and that we respect them to make the right decisions and the right choices about their own healthcare."
Varadkar said he planned for a new law to allow abortions to be in place by the end of the year and Health Minister Simon Harris told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the cabinet would meet on Tuesday to approve the drafting of legislation.
The result looks set to be another hammer blow to the Roman Catholic Church's authority in Ireland, coming 3 years after referendum voters backed legalizing same-sex marriage by 62 percent.
Varadkar, Ireland's first gay prime minister, came to power last year in what was seen as another major milestone for diversity in Ireland.
The Church's influence has waned in recent years following a series of child sex abuse scandals.
The referendum comes 3 months before a visit by Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families.
The Irish Times survey suggested women voted by 70 percent in favor of the proposal and men by 65 percent.
People over 65 voted 60 percent against repealing the current legislation, which only allows terminations in cases where the mother's life is in danger. (READ: Ireland votes to allow abortion in certain cases)
However, all other age groups backed the proposal, with support at 87 percent among the youngest voters, aged 18 to 24.
Counting under way
Counting was under way at 26 count centers, with the 40 constituencies to declare individual results before the full final declaration at Dublin Castle. Around 3.5 million people had the chance to vote.
With counting ongoing before the first constituency declaration, the official Together for Yes campaign to repeal the abortion ban said they had passed more than a million votes, and were running at 68 percent support.
Varadkar's government has proposed that if the amendment is repealed, abortion will be allowed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and between 12 and 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.
In Dublin, many voters welcomed the expected overwhelming result.
Catherine Claffey, 53, a flower seller on the capital's main Grafton Street shopping thoroughfare, said: "We've pulled ourselves out of the dark ages. We're not a backward country any more, the way the church would have had us thinking."
John Kelly, 62, said: "I'm actually very proud of it."
Dropping the 8th amendment
The anti-abortion campaign, which wanted to keep the Irish constitution's eighth amendment, seemed prepared to accept a heavy defeat but vowed to stand firm.
"Abortion on demand would deal Ireland a tragic blow but the pro-life movement will rise to any challenge it faces," said prominent anti-abortion campaigner Cora Sherlock.
Abortion is still banned in some 20 countries worldwide, while others have highly restrictive laws in place. In the European Union, predominantly Catholic Malta is the only country with a total ban.
Ireland's eighth amendment recognizes the "right to life of the unborn" with an "equal right to life of the mother".
The amendment was introduced after a 1983 referendum that approved a constitutional ban on abortion.
Anyone terminating a pregnancy in Ireland currently faces up to 14 years in jail.
The law was tweaked in 2013 to allow terminations if the mother's life is at risk.
The ban has led to thousands of women travelling each year to neighboring Britain, where terminations are legal, or increasingly turning to abortion pills sold online.
Since 1983, around 170,000 Irish women have gone abroad for terminations.
Art director Aoife Murray, 27, who voted in Dublin, said the exit poll left her in tears of relief.
"It's mad that there would have been people flying in to vote and a number of women in that airport waiting to leave to go and have an abortion," she told AFP.
Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party in neighboring Northern Ireland, said "eyes will now turn" north of the border, where abortion and same-sex marriage remain illegal, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom. – Rappler.com