Irish voters flock to the polls for historic referendum on abortion, with exit polls favoring liberalization

Irish voters flocked to the polls on Friday to cast their votes in a historic referendum on abortion that may overturn what are some of the most restrictive laws in the world.

Thousands of eligible voters living overseas flew in or took ferries to participate in a referendum that is asking them to repeal or uphold a constitutional amendment that makes abortion illegal in almost all cases, including rape and incest, unless the life of the mother is at risk.

The Eighth Amendment in Ireland’s constitution means that women with unviable as well as unwanted pregnancies are forced to travel overseas for a termination with no aftercare when they return. The repeal side argues for women’s right to health care and choice, while the save-the-8th side is concerned that repealing the amendment will lead to abortion on demand.

The daily newspaper the Irish Times reported that turnout at some polling places was higher by early afternoon than had been the case at the same time of day during Ireland’s referendum on marriage equality in 2015.

Two exit polls released after voting closed late Friday showed large votes of 68% to 69% in favor of repealing the amendment, the BBC reported. The official result is expected to be released early Saturday evening.

That referendum also saw a strong push to encourage Irish people who can still vote to go home and do so, but this time many people were also donating money to pay travel expenses. A Facebook FB, -0.54% group was matching donors who are no longer eligible to vote with people who can but are unable to afford the trip.

Irish law allows nationals to continue to vote for 18 months after leaving the country, but there are no absentee-ballot provisions. (Disclosure: This reporter is an Irish citizen who is no longer permitted to vote.)

Social media was full of images and reports of cheering crowds at airports welcoming travelers, with one woman cheerfully dispensing Tayto crisps, a popular brand of Irish potato chips, to new arrivals.

On Twitter TWTR, +0.33% the hashtag #hometovote was trending, along with #repealthe8th, #togetherforyes and #savethe8th. There were emotional scenes at airports and ferry terminals, with many women making the point that their journeys were the inverse of the trips that roughly nine Irish women are reported to make every day: to the U.K. for pregnancy terminations.

The Eighth Amendment to the constitution was introduced in 1983 and gives equal rights to a pregnant woman and an unborn fetus. If the amendment is repealed, it is expected to lead the Irish government to allow abortion for a restricted period of up to 12 weeks after conception.

The reason for the referendum: The wording of the amendment (see below) has had consequences for some women whose pregnancies have gone wrong, as they wereunable to terminate nonviable pregnancies.

‘The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’

Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution

The amendment is widely viewed as contributing to at least one high-profile death: that of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar, who was refused an abortion in a Galway hospital in 2012 during a miscarriage that lasted three days. Halappanavar died of sepsis. An inquest found her death was caused by “medical misadventure” as doctors failed to intervene until it was too late.

The 1983 referendum happened at a time when the Catholic Church had a strong role in Irish society, but that has changed. The sexual-abuse scandals involving members of the clergy that broke in the 1990s and 2000s have contributed to a dramatic weakening of the influence of the church in Ireland, which once virtually co-governed and ran many schools and other institutions.

The church was mostly left out of debates leading up to Friday’s vote, which were conducted by women on both sides, and included many emotional tales of the trauma of being forced to seek medical help overseas at a highly vulnerable time in a woman’s life. The penalty for an illegal abortion in Ireland, either by back-street means or through the use of abortion pills, is a 14-year prison term.

The referendum is necessary because the Irish constitution includes a provision stipulating that any change must be voted on by the whole nation — one reason that Ireland has in the past voted on issues including divorce and marriage equality.

The polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time and will stay open until 10 p.m. The final tally will be announced at Dublin Castle on Saturday.

The Irish taoiseach, or prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is supporting repeal, as are all the major political parties. Campaigners on both sides were still busy canvassing on Friday, according to local media.

Social media had been awash with bots retweeting opinions and articles with a strong anti-abortion-rights message, according to observers, while Facebook users were bombarded with privately sponsored or anonymous ads in an attempt to influence their decisions, according to data from the nonprofit Transparent Referendum Initiative.

That led Google GOOG, -0.33% to make the unusual decision to ban all ads on the referendum from its search engine and YouTube, while Facebook banned all ads that came from advertisers outside Ireland. There were many reports of foreign money, including from pro-life groups in the U.S., seeking to sway the vote.

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