DUBLIN — Abortion rights activists proclaimed victory for social justice Saturday as exit polls and early results indicated Ireland had voted overwhelmingly to repeal a 1983 constitutional ban on abortions.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, speaking Saturday before official results were announced, said it appeared that voters chose to liberalize Ireland's strict laws on abortion — only allowed when a woman's life is at risk — by a more than two-to-one margin.
"The people have spoken," said Varadkar, a medical doctor who campaigned for repeal in Friday's historic referendum. "The people have said that we want a modern constitution for a modern country, that we trust women and we respect them to make the right decision and the right choices about their health care."
Calling the result a culmination of a "quiet revolution" that had been gaining strength in the last 20 years, Varadkar said the large margin of victory will give his government a greater mandate when enacting new abortion legislation through parliament.
Campaigners who have fought for more than three decades to remove the eighth amendment abortion ban from Ireland's constitution hailed the referendum vote as a major breakthrough in a largely Catholic nation that has already seen a wave of social liberalization in recent years.
"This is a monumental day for women in Ireland," said Orla O'Connor, co-director of the Together for Yes group. "This is about women taking their rightful place in Irish society, finally."
The vote is a "rejection of an Ireland that treated women as second-class citizens," she said, adding: "This is about women's equality and this day brings massive change, monumental change for women in Ireland, and there is no going back."
Official counting for Friday's referendum on whether or not to liberalize Ireland's abortion laws was still under way, and final results are not expected until later Saturday.
But exit polls from the Irish Times and broadcaster RTE suggest the Irish people have voted by nearly 70 percent to repeal the eighth amendment, which requires authorities to treat a fetus and its mother as equals under the law.
Early results declared Saturday afternoon pointed to a landslide win for abortion rights campaigners across the country. The first constituency to declare — traditionally conservative Galway East — returned a 60 percent vote to repeal the abortion ban. Results from urban centers were even more decisive. Dublin Central posted 76.5 percent for repeal, while two constituencies in the southern capital of Cork City polled 64 percent and almost 69 percent.
Opponents of the repeal movement have conceded they have no chance of victory.
John McGuirk, spokesman for the Save the 8th group, told Irish television Saturday that many Irish citizens will not recognize the country they are waking up in. The group said on its website that Irish voters have created a "tragedy of historic proportions," but McGuirk said the vote must be respected.
"You can still passionately believe that the decision of the people is wrong, as I happen to do, and accept it," he said.
If the projected numbers hold up, the referendum would likely end the need for thousands of Irish women to travel abroad — mostly to neighboring Britain — for abortions they can't get at home.
Ireland's parliament will be charged with coming up with new abortion laws in the coming months. The government proposes to allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with later terminations allowed in some cases.
Katherine Zappone, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, said she is confident new abortion legislation can be approved by parliament and put in place before the end of the year.
"I feel very emotional," she said. "I'm especially grateful to the women of Ireland who came forward to provide their personal testimony about the hard times that they endured, the stress and the trauma that they experienced because of the eighth amendment."
The magnitude of the predicted victory exceeded the expectations of abortion rights activists. Surprisingly, they also suggest that supporters of more liberal abortion laws may have triumphed throughout the country, not just in the cosmopolitan capital, Dublin, where a strong youth vote had been anticipated.
The RTE exit poll of 3,779 voters predicts support for the "yes" vote in urban areas to be about 72 percent, with rural support at about 63 percent.
It indicates about 72 percent of women voted "yes" along with about 66 percent of men. The strongest backing came from youthful voters — the exit poll says the only age group in which a majority voted "no" were voters who are 65 or older. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6 percent.