Official ballot counting has begun in a referendum on easing restrictions on abortion in Ireland. In a landmark referendum, millions were asked if they wanted to overturn a constitutional ban on abortion.
Vote counting for Ireland's historic abortion rights referendum began on Saturday morning at 0800 UTC with official results expected to be declared in the late afternoon.
Two exit polls carried out on Friday after voting closed predicted there would be an overwhelming victory for those voting in favor repealing a constitutional ban on abortion.
Some 69 percent of Irish voters backed easing access to abortion in the country, while 31 percent were opposed, according to an exit poll conducted on behalf of Ireland's national broadcaster RTE. An earlier Irish Times/IPSOS poll projected a landslide victory with 68 precent voting in favour of the referendum, and 32 percent against it.
In light of the exit poll results, the main group opposing the liberalization of the country's abortion law conceded on Saturday that it had lost the election.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the overwhelming vote against the ban represented the culmination of a "quiet revolution" in Ireland.
"The public have spoken. The result appears to be resounding ... in favour of repealing the 8th amendment" constitutional ban on abortion, Varadkar told journalists in Dublin.
"What we see is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland over the last couple of decades," he added.
A mural of Savita Halappanavar whose death after being denied an abortion in 2012 galvanized the pro-abortion rights movement
After the exit poll predictions were announced, Ireland's prime minister, Leo Varadkar, tweeted, "Thank you to everyone who voted today. Democracy in action. It’s looking like we will make history tomorrow." The country's deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, said, "Thank you to everybody who voted today — democracy can be so powerful on days like today — looks like a stunning result that will bring about a fundamental change for the better. Proud to be Irish tonight."
Irish voters "weighed it in the balance and it came down on one side. I obviously would have preferred if they had come down on the other," said John McGuirk, the communications director for the "Save the 8th" campaign, in comments to national broadcaster RTE.
The deeply Catholic nation became the first country to adopt same-sex marriage by popular vote in a 2015 referendum. The turnout for Friday's vote may top the gay marriage referendum, RTE reported.
Home to Vote
Ireland does not give its expatriates absentee ballots or the option to vote at embassies. Irish people living abroad for less than 18 months remain on the electoral roll, however are required to return home to vote. Thousands of Irish people made the journey home to take part in the referendum. The country's huge global diaspora have used the hashtag #hometovote on social media.
Many returning home to vote were greeted by a group of activists holding a placard reading "Thank you for making the journey so other women don't have to" — a reference to the way Irish women seeking abortions have had to leave the country to obtain them.
Friday's referendum follows months of bitter debate between "Yes" and "No" campaigners on whether or not the country's Eighth Amendment — which acknowledges the embryo's right to life "with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother" — should be scrapped. RTE reported a "lively" and "brisk" turnout at polling stations across the country. If the "yes" vote is confirmed, Ireland's parliament will be tasked with writing new regulations on abortion.
rs, kw/ng (AP, dpa, Reuters)