DUBLIN—Irish voters overwhelmingly repealed a constitutional ban on abortion, according to an exit poll by the state broadcaster, a sweeping change that caps an emotion-filled debate and marks another significant step away from the country’s historic Catholic influence.
If confirmed by the official vote count, Ireland is expected to join the U.S. and much of the rest of Europe in allowing abortion, a milestone in the undoing of the close relationship to the church that developed after Ireland gained independence from the U.K. in 1922.
The RTE survey of 3,000 voters across the country on Friday found that 69.4% had backed repeal of the ban, while 30.6% had supported its retention. A separate survey of 4,000 voters carried out for the Irish Times newspaper found 68% backed repeal, against 32% who were opposed. Opinion polls long pointed to a victory for repeal, but none had suggested the margin would be so large. If confirmed, the vote in favor of repeal would be larger than that recorded in a 2015 referendum that backed gay marriage.
The referendum campaign, which dominated the country’s airwaves and streets for weeks, largely pitted younger, urban Irish voters against older and rural voters. In a sign of the quickly changing times, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar had committed his government to supporting the move to repeal the ban.
“Thank you to everyone who voted today,” Mr. Varadkar wrote on his Twitter account. “It’s looking like we will make history tomorrow.”
The official vote count was to begin Saturday morning.
According to the Irish Times poll, there were large majorities in favor of repeal among voters under 65 years of age, while older voters wanted to retain the ban. It also indicated there was a majority in favor of repeal in each of the country’s four historic provinces, including the more rural Connacht and Ulster. In Dublin, it found 77% favored repeal.
Connacht-Ulster, expected to be the bulwark of the anti-repeal vote, voted in favor of the constitutional change by 59% to 41%, the poll found.
The ban was added to the constitution through a referendum in 1983. Antiabortion activists argue it has kept the abortion rate well below levels seen in other European countries and the U.S. The campaign to lift the ban argued it largely failed to stop Irish women from terminating their pregnancies, pointing out that more than 150,000 women have traveled to the U.K. to do so since 1980.
Along with Northern Ireland, Poland and Malta, Ireland is one of few European countries to outlaw abortion in all or most cases.
Abortion is still a sensitive subject, and many people voting in Donnycarney, a north Dublin suburb, were reluctant to discuss their vote. A steady stream of people entering the polling station pointed to a high turnout in the capital city, which is expected to have backed repeal.
Polls show support for changing Ireland’s constitution to allow abortion …
*Will not vote or refused to answer. Note: Some results don’t add up to 100% due to rounding
Source: An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll released May 16 of 1,200 respondents. Margin of error ±3 pct. pts.
“This country needs big changes, and today is the day for change,” said 54-year-old Lorraine Thompson. “I have a 13-year-old daughter. If something happened to her, I don’t fancy taking her out of the country.”
Campaigners weren’t allowed to make their case close to the polling stations, but groups were displaying posters to passing traffic on the main roads of the capital in the hope of soliciting honks of support from passing cars. In some cases, “yes” and “no” campaigners were close together, and it was difficult to tell which were getting the most honks. The other main vehicle for campaigning on the day of the vote was social media, with a steady stream of declarations for both sides from politicians, campaign groups and individuals who often shared personal stories.
“I’m voting ‘no’ because there is nothing compassionate or progressive about the brutality of abortion,” said Niamh Ui Bhriain, a campaigner for keeping the ban. “I’m voting no because everyone deserves a chance of life.”
But the long period of consultation leading up to the referendum, which started in 2016, means that many voters had made up their minds before the intense period of campaigning began in March. Paul Pender, a 66-year-old voting in Donnycarney, said his decision had been made some time ago.
“I believe women should have the choice,” he said. “I’m not in favor of abortion, but they should have the choice.”
While high turnout in Dublin was encouraging for those favoring repeal, similar levels were reported in rural areas that were expected to swing in favor of retaining the ban.
The vote follows two decades of rapid social change, as a better-educated and more cosmopolitan class shaped by the country’s economic boom began to take hold. Catholic influence waned at the same time, partly due to a wave of church-related scandals, ranging from clerical child abuse to church-run homes for unmarried mothers, where many were forced to give up their children for adoption.
In the 1990s, the country decriminalized homosexual acts and removed a constitutional ban on divorce. Ireland’s legalization of same-sex marriage three years ago made it the first country to do so by popular vote.
The government says it is prepared to introduce legislation to allow terminations up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, and later in certain circumstances.
The timing may be affected by a possible general election. A three-year agreement between Ireland’s two largest parties that allows Mr. Varadkar to govern without a majority of lawmakers in parliament expires later this year, and it isn’t expected to be renewed.
Write to Paul Hannon at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the May 26, 2018, print edition as ‘Irish Repeal Abortion Ban In Landslide.’