DUBLIN • Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he was quietly confident that a strong early turnout in Ireland's abortion referendum yesterday would favour those seeking change in what only two decades ago was one of Europe's most socially conservative countries.
Opinion polls suggest voters in the once deeply Catholic nation are set to overturn one of the world's strictest bans on terminations and analysts say a high turnout, particularly in urban areas, is likely to favour a "Yes" vote.
"Not taking anything for granted, of course, but quietly confident. There has been a good turnout so far across the country," Mr Varadkar, the gay son of an Indian immigrant who is in favour of change and has called the referendum a "once-in-a-generation" chance, told reporters.
Voters are being 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 ban on abortion even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality was partly lifted in 2013 for cases where the mother's life is in danger.
Polls put the pro-choice side ahead by as many as 29 percentage points.
Ireland legalised divorce by a razor-thin majority only in 1995, and three years ago became the first country to adopt gay marriage by popular vote.
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.
Not taking anything for granted, of course, but quietly confident. There has been a good turnout so far across the country.
IRELAND'S PRIME MINISTER LEO VARADKAR, the gay son of an Indian immigrant who is in favour of change and has called the referendum a "once-in-a-generation" chance.
"I think this issue is important because it's been 35 years since any person has had a choice to vote on this," said Ms Sophie O'Gara, 28, who was voting "Yes" near Dublin's bustling "Silicon Docks", home to some of the world's biggest technology firms.
"So many women have travelled across to England to take care of their family and healthcare needs and I think it's a disgrace and it needs to change," she said, 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.
Facebook, under scrutiny for its role in Britain's Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election, said earlier this month it would no longer accept advertisements related to the referendum from outside Ireland.
Unlike in 1983, when religion was front and centre and abortion was a taboo subject for most, the present campaign has been defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.
"Yes" campaigners have argued that abortion is already a reality in Ireland, what with more than 3,000 women travelling to Britain each year for terminations and others ordering pills illegally online.
The "No" camp has 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 step too far for most voters.
"I think it's important that we protect the unborn babies, people don't care any more about the dignity of human life," said Mr John Devlin, a marketing worker in his 50s voting "No" near Dublin's city centre.
Polling stations were to close at 5am today Singapore time and national broadcaster RTE will publish an exit poll at 6.30am.