Ireland began voting on Friday in an Irish abortion referendum that could be a milestone on a path of change in a country that, only two decades ago, was one of Europe’s most socially conservative.
Polls suggest Irish voters are set to overturn one of the world’s strictest bans on terminations. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, in favour of change, has called the referendum a “once-in-a-generation” chance.
Voters in the once deeply Catholic nation will be asked if they wish to scrap a prohibition that was enshrined in the constitution by referendum 35 year ago, and partly lifted in 2013 only for cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
Ireland has been changing fast. It legalised divorce by a razor-thin majority only in 1995, but three years ago became the first country in the world to adopt same sex gay marriage by popular vote.
A decades-old battle over abortion has played out in a fiercely contested debate that divided political parties, saw the once mighty church take a back seat and became 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 people, the campaign was instead defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.
“I think it’s the right thing for the women of Ireland – care, compassion, dignity and safety. Equal healthcare is why I’m voting ‘Yes’,” said Joanna Faughan, 33, voting in the north Dublin suburb of Castleknock where queues formed before polls opened at 0600 GMT.
“Yes” campaigners have 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.
Writing in the Times Ireland newspaper, Varadkar urged voters to put themselves in the shoes of an Irish woman dealing with a crisis pregnancy.
Although not on the ballot paper, the “No” camp has seized on government plans to allow terminations with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the referendum is carried, calling it a step too far for most voters.
They argue that the right to life of the unborn child which the 1983 vote equated to that of the mother is a human rights issue.
“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 early 50s voting ‘No’ near Dublin’s city centre.
Opinion polls have put those who favour changing the law in a clear lead. The two most recent surveys showed the “Yes” side pulling further ahead.
Polling stations close at 2100 GMT and national broadcaster RTE plans to publish an exit poll at 2230 GMT. The first indications of the result are expected mid-morning on Saturday, after the count begins at 0800 GMT.
Analysts said a high turnout similar to the 62 percent who voted to adopt gay marriage, particularly in urban areas, would likely favour the “Yes” side.
Many expatriate Irish have travelled home to vote in one of the few European Union countries that does not allow those abroad to vote via post or in embassies.
The hashtag #hometovote was the top trending issues on Twitter, as it was for the gay marriage vote.
Those away for less than 18 months remain eligible to vote at their former local polling station, and an overwhelming majority appeared to back change.
Many posted photos of themselves wearing sweatshirts bearing the “Yes” side’s “Repeal” slogan and friends shared videos of scores of voters being welcomed home at Irish airports.
“It was just a quick hop across the pond,” said Harry Brennan, a 22-year-old consultant who returned home to Sandymount in south Dublin from London to vote ‘Yes’ alongside his 18-year-old brother, first-time voter Eoin.
“I think the fact that we’re sending people on planes and boats to other countries to deal with problems that should be dealt with at home, it’s important to make that right,” he said, referring to women who travel to Britain for abortions.