DUBLIN — Irish voters overwhelmingly backed a repeal of Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion in a sweeping cultural change representing a move away from the nation’s conservative Catholic roots.
The final tally showed that 66.4% supported the repeal out of 2.1 million votes cast on Friday according to election official Barry Ryan.
Donegal was the only county to vote “no,” with 51.9% voting against the repeal and 48.1% in favor.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called the result the culmination of a “quiet revolution.”
“The people have spoken,” said Varadkar, a medical doctor who campaigned for repeal in the 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.”
As a result of the vote, Ireland’s government will now seek to pass legislation that allows abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The current law prohibits all abortions in Ireland, except in cases when the woman’s life is at risk, and having an illegal abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
For thousands of Irish women, the repeal will end their need to travel abroad – mostly to neighboring Britain – for abortions.
Supporters of the repeal were jubilant, particularly at Dublin’s Intercontinental hotel, where the Together For Yes group,buoyed by exit polls, was celebrating its apparent victory.
“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.”
More than 1,000 people gathered outside Dublin Castle, singing, chanting, and toasting one another with champagne as they waited for the official announcement.
Opponents of the repeal movement conceded defeat earlier.
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.
John Aidan Byrne, 58, an Irishman who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years and runs a group called Irish Pro-Life USA, said that doing away with the ban would mean “fewer protections” for his friends and family in Ireland.
“Once you introduce legalized abortion it changes the entire dynamic of society. And it divides it politically, socially and — let’s be frank — spiritually,” he said.
But others viewed the vote as evidence that Ireland, for years held back by traditional voices in the church, was embracing tolerance and progressiveness as well as continuing down a path of liberalization after national votes in recent years that ushered in legalizing contraception, divorce, homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
“We woke up this morning to a new Ireland. Ireland’s changed,” said Deidre Duffy, one the organizers of the campaign to change Ireland’s abortion law.
“One by one, the manacles imposed by clerical control and society’s deference to it have been removed, and Ireland has altered beyond recognition,” said Martina Devlin in a column for the Irish Independent newspaper Saturday.
Lawyer Anna McCarthy, 35, was standing near a Dublin mural on Saturday of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist who died in Galway in 2012 due to blood poisoning resulting from a miscarriage after she was denied an abortion.
Halappanavar’s death helped galvanize efforts to change Ireland’s abortion laws.
“This is something to be celebrated,” McCarthy said.
“Finally, we’re not shaming women, we’re not punishing them, or judging them — we’re just going to have a law that supports people in crisis. This is a win for everybody.”
Messages of condolence were affixed to a wall next to the image of Halappanavar.
“This should NEVER have happened to you,” read one. “Our babies were only six weeks apart, you inspired me and the whole nation to say NEVER AGAIN.”
Repealing Ireland’s Eighth Amendment that gives equal protection to a fetus and the woman would bring the once-staunchly Catholic country in line with abortion practices in the United States and the majority of Europe.
It would leave only three places in Europe where abortion is illegal unless the woman’s life is at risk: tiny Andorra and San Marino, and Malta. Four countries around the world do not allow abortions under any circumstances, according to the Pew Research Center. They are the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Vatican City.
“It’s a very emotional day,” said Simon Harris, Ireland’s minister for health, speaking to media at Dublin Castle, where the results of the vote will be announced.
Over the last 20-30 years the idea of Ireland as a Catholic country has been changing,” said Mary McAuliffe, a gender studies expert at University College Dublin.
“We’re no longer an isolated country on the edge of Europe hidebound by outdated ideas about morality, femininity and controlling women’s bodies,” she said.