DUBLIN • Ireland has voted by a landslide to liberalise some of the world's most restrictive abortion laws in what its prime minister described as the culmination of a "quiet revolution" in what was one of Europe's most socially conservative countries.
Voters in the once deeply Catholic nation were estimated to have backed the change by more than two-to-one, according to two exit polls released on Friday evening, and the government plans to bring in legislation by the end of the year.
"It's incredible. For all the years and years and years we've been trying to look after women and not been able to look after women, this means everything," said obstetrician and Together For Yes campaigner Mary Higgins.
With results declared in just over half of the 40 voting constituencies, 67 per cent backed the proposal. Final results were due later yesterday.
"The public have spoken. The result appears to be resoundingly... in favour of repealing the 8th Amendment" constitutional ban on abortion, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who campaigned for repeal, told journalists in Dublin.
"What we see is the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland over the last couple of decades," said Mr Varadkar, the son of an Indian immigrant who became the country's first openly gay Prime Minister last year.
It's incredible. For all the years and years and years we've been trying to look after women and not been able to look after women, this means everything.
DR MARY HIGGINS, obstetrician and Together For Yes campaigner.
If confirmed, the outcome will be the latest milestone on a path of change for a country which only legalised divorce by a razor-thin majority in 1995, before becoming the first in the world to adopt gay marriage by popular vote three years ago.
Mr John McGuirk, a spokesman for an anti-abortion umbrella group Save The 8th, conceded there was "no prospect" the country's abortion ban, imposed in a 1983 referendum, would be retained.
Voters were asked if they wish to scrap the amendment, which 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 was in danger.
The country's largest newspaper, the Irish Independent, described the result as "a massive moment in Ireland's social history".
Campaigners for change, wearing "Repeal" jumpers and "Yes" badges, gathered at the main Dublin count centre, many in tears and hugging each other.
"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.
No social issue has divided Ireland's 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.
Campaigners left flowers and candles at a large mural of the woman, Ms Savita Halappanavar, in central Dublin.
Speaking to the Guardian by phone from his home in Karnataka, south-west India, Ms Halappanavar's father Andanappa Yalagi said: "We've got justice for Savita, and what happened to her will not happen to any other family now."