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Irish abortion referendum: Counting starts as exit polls show landslide in favor

IRELAND — The counting of votes was underway Saturday following Ireland’s referendum to lift its constitutional ban on abortion after exit polls pointed to an emphatic “Yes.”

DUBLIN, IRELAND – MAY 25: Members of the public hold yes placards on Grafton Street as the country heads to polling stations on May 25, 2018 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

A poll released by Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE shortly after polling stations closed Friday night predicted that nearly 70% voted in favor of repealing a 35-year-old amendment to the Irish Constitution that placed the rights of mother and embryo on the same footing.

Crowds of “Yes” voters began to gather Saturday morning to celebrate at Dublin Castle. “We expected just to scrape by. We thought it would be close,” said Heather Keane, 24, who lives in London but flew home for the vote.

Keane said she had been crying tears of joy on the news of the exit polls.

Official results are expected late Saturday afternoon.

“It’s a very compassionate result,” said Rebecca Moynihan, a local Labour politician in Dublin. “People knew what they were voting for. They have listened to the stories of Irish women.”

The Eighth Amendment, which was added to the constitution following a referendum in 1983, banned abortion in Ireland unless there was a “real and substantial risk” to the mother’s life.

If the exit polls are confirmed, the referendum will also complete a circle of sweeping social reforms in the European Union nation that fly in the face of the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church, from contraception to divorce, and most recently same-sex marriage.

Those opposed to abortion vowed Saturday to take their fight now to the Irish Parliament, where lawmakers will have to bring about legislation allowing for terminations in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy — and later in cases where there is a risk to the mother’s life or the fetus is not expected to survive.

The vote appears to signifying an astounding victory for the government of Leo Varadkar, the Prime Minister, or Taoiseach as the office is called in Ireland.

“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. “This has been a great exercise in democracy, and the people have spoken.”

Dr. Ruth Cullen, spokeswoman for the anti-abortion LoveBoth campaign, conceded defeat Saturday before the count had finished.

“We will hold the Taoiseach to his promise that repeal would only lead to abortion in very restrictive circumstances. He gave his word on this, now he must deliver on it. No doubt many people voted for repeal based on the Taoiseach’s promises in this regard,” Cullen said in a press conference Saturday.

Varadkar is not only Ireland’s youngest ever and also first openly gay Prime Minister but also the first of duel heritage. His father is an Indian doctor.

The death of an Indian dentist ignited the abortion rights campaign. Savita Halappanavar, 31, died in Ireland in 2012 because of complications from a natural miscarriage after abortion was denied to her.

Turnout was high Friday in all the 6,500 polling stations in 40 constituencies across the Irish Republic. If the final turnout surpasses 60.52%, it will be higher than Ireland’s referendum on same-sex marriage, which passed in 2015. Turnout was more than 70% in some areas, broadcaster RTE reported.

The exit poll showed 69% of men voting and 72.1% of women voting supporting repeal, among an electorate of more than 3.2 million who were eligible to cast their ballots Friday, including thousands of Irish living abroad who had made the journey home to vote.

Support appeared to decrease with age. The exit poll said repeal was supported by 87.6% of voters 18 to 24, 84.6% of voters 25 to 34, 72.8% of voters 35 to 49, and 63.7% of voters 50 to 64.

Voters over 65 were the only age group overall not supporting the amendment, with 58.7% voting no, the poll said.