DUBLIN (REUTERS) - The people of Ireland are set to liberalise some of the world's most restrictive abortion laws by a landslide, an exit poll showed on Friday (May 25), as voters demanded change in what two decades ago was one of Europe's most socially conservative countries.
The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI exit poll suggested that voters in the once deeply Catholic nation had backed a referendum by a margin of 68 per cent to 32 per cent.
A second exit poll was due to be published by 10.30pm GMT (6.30am on Saturday, Singapore time).
"Not the official result, but it's looking good!," Irish Culture Minister Josepha Madigan, co-ordinator for Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's governing party's campaign for a "Yes" vote, said on Twitter.
Vote-counting begins at 8am GMT on Saturday, with the first indication of results expected mid-morning.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan called it "another big step out of our dark past."
Varadkar called the referendum a once-in-a-generation chance and voters responded with national broadcaster RTE reporting that turnout could be one of the highest for a referendum, potentially topping the 61 per cent who backed gay marriage by a large margin in 2015.
Voters were asked if they wish to scrap a 1983 amendment to the constitution that gives an unborn child and its mother equal rights to life. The consequent prohibition on abortion was partly lifted in 2013 for cases where the mother's life is in danger.
Ireland legalised divorce by a razor-thin majority only in 1995, but became the first country to adopt gay marriage by popular vote in the 2015 referendum.
But no social issue has divided its 4.8 million people as sharply as abortion, which was pushed up the political agenda by the death in 2012 of a 31-year-old Indian immigrant from a septic miscarriage after she was refused a termination.
Yet the exit poll showed overwhelming majorities in all age groups under 65 voted for change, including almost nine in every 10 voters under the age of 24.
It suggested the highest "Yes" vote was in Dublin, where 77 per cent of voters were in favour, but there was no sharp urban/rural divide as in previous referendums on the subject, with all provincial areas backing the proposals.
"So many women have travelled across to England to take care of their family and health-care needs and I think it's a disgrace and it needs to change," said "Yes" voter Sophie O'Gara, 28, referring to women who travel to Britain for abortions.
The fiercely contested vote has divided political parties, seen the once-mighty church take a back seat, and become a test case for how global internet giants deal with social media advertising in political campaigns.
Unlike in 1983, when religion was front and centre and abortion was a taboo subject for most, the campaign was defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.
"Yes" campaigners argued that with over 3,000 women travelling to Britain each year for terminations - a right enshrined in a 1992 referendum - and others ordering pills illegally online, abortion is already a reality in Ireland.
Although not on the ballot paper, the "No" camp seized on government plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the referendum is carried, calling it a human rights issue and a step too far for most voters.
"I think it's important that we protect the unborn babies, people don't care anymore about the dignity of human life. I've a family myself and I think it's really important," said John Devlin, a marketing worker in his 50s who voted "No" near Dublin's city centre.
The Irish government's push to liberalise the laws is in contrast to the United States, where abortion has long been legal, but President Donald Trump backs stripping federal funding from women's health care clinics that offer abortions.
HOME TO VOTE
Videos shared on social media showed scores of voters arriving home at Irish airports from abroad. Ireland does not allow expatriates to vote via post or in embassies but those away for less than 18 months remain on the electoral roll.
As with the gay marriage referendum, those using the #hometovote hashtag on Twitter appeared overwhelmingly to back change. Many posted photos of themselves wearing sweatshirts bearing the "Repeal" slogan.
"Women and girls should not be made into healthcare refugees when they are in a time of crisis," said Niamh Kelly, 27, who paid 800 euros (S$1,200) and travelled 20 hours to return home from Hanoi where she works as an English teacher.
"This is a once in a lifetime generation chance to lift the culture of shame that surrounds this issue so it was really important to me to be part of that."