Ireland appeared to move away from its conservative Roman Catholic roots and embrace a more liberal viewpoint today as two major exit polls predicted voters had repealed a constitutional ban on abortion.
The RTE television and Irish Times exit polls are only predictions, with official tallies due Saturday afternoon (local time), but both exit polls suggested an overwhelming victory for abortion rights activists seeking a "yes" vote to change the constitution.
Catherine Murphy, co-leader of the small Social Democrats party, said the polls strongly indicate "voters have taken on board the clear message that the constitutional ban harms women" and must be removed from the constitution.
If the exit poll numbers hold up, the victory will be of a larger magnitude than "yes" activists had believed possible. It would then fall to Parliament to establish new laws governing abortions.
Ireland's referendum represented a battle for the very soul of a traditionally conservative nation that has seen a wave of liberalization in recent years.
The country's leaders supported a "yes," an outcome that would repeal a 1983 constitutional amendment requiring authorities to treat a fetus and its mother as equals under the law. They called it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to liberalize some of Europe's strictest abortion rules.
Voters went to the polls after a campaign that aroused deep emotions on both sides. For advocates of repeal, a "yes" vote would be a landmark in Irish women's fight for equality and the right to control their own bodies. For opponents, it would be a betrayal of Ireland's commitment to protect the unborn.
The vote also is a key indicator of Ireland's trajectory, three years after the country voted to allow same-sex marriages and a year after its first openly gay prime minister took office.
The newspaper exit poll indicated overwhelming support for change. The survey by pollster Ipsos-MRBI says 68 percent of voters backed repeal of the ban and 32 percent opposed it. The pollster says it interviewed some 4,000 people and the survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. The RTE poll used similar methods and projected the "yes" vote to be nearly 70 percent.
The voting took place on a day that was sunny throughout much of Ireland, which may have bolstered turnout.
The contested amendment requires authorities to equally protect the right to life of a mother and that of a fetus, from the moment of conception. That effectively bans all abortions in Ireland, except in cases when the woman's life is at risk. Having an illegal abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and several thousand Irish women travel each year to get abortions in neighboring Britain.