Ireland, a once fiercely Catholic country, has voted by a landslide in favor of legalizing abortion in a referendum.
Final results gave a Yes vote of 66 percent, slightly less than forecast in exit polls last night. Yes won by a majority of more than 700,000 out of a total of 2,153,613 votes, winning 1,429,981 of the votes.
In some parts of Dublin, the Yes vote exceeded 75 percent, while only one county, the more rural region of Donegal, voted No, by a margin of 52-48. However the Donegal result appeared to be an anomaly rather than indicative of a rural—urban divide; all three of the remote Arran Islands voted in favor of repeal by 67-33.
Dublin Central was one of the first counts to declare, with 76.5 percent voting for Yes.
Eighty-seven percent of those aged 18-24 voted for repeal.
The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, hailed the result as “the culmination of a quiet revolution that has been taking place in Ireland for the past 10 or 20 years.” He has promised legislation allowing unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks will be fast tracked and enacted by the end of the years.
One of the leaders of the No campaign, John McGuirk, conceded defeat when an exit poll showing the extent of the victory was published on Friday night, tweeting, “The 8th did not create an unborn child’s right to life - it merely acknowledged it. The right exists, independent of what a majority says. That said, with a result of that magnitude, clearly there was very little to be done. Thank you to every No voter and campaigner.”
Although the Yes side had been comfortably ahead in every poll, there had been tremendous nervousness among Yes campaigners, after the Brexit and Trump votes, that the result could have gone the other way.
Elated crowds gathered at Dublin Castle, where the official result was announced, to celebrate the result.
Alison Deegan, 60, a writer and mother of four children, told The Daily Beast: “When I was a child, a girl who lived nearby had to travel overseas for an abortion and it made a huge impact on me. She had to hide, she had no one to turn to, no one to accompany her. I don’t even know how she got the money to go. These were stories we heard all the time.
“This result is people who grew up in a fundamentalist Catholic society saying that ideology as political policy is untenable and cruel. It’s not just unworkable, it’s harmful. Women were entirely vulnerable to the Church telling us we may not have any sexual contact unless it was subject to their rules.
“I’m incredibly proud of my country today. It’s very easy to throw whatever weight you have behind an institution that’s promising you freedom and glory in the next life, but what about this life? Today we are saying that this life is just as important.”
The result was also widely interpreted as a natural next chapter in the country’s story after Ireland voted to allow same sex marriage two years ago, and then elected a gay man as premier.
Historian Turtle Bunbury, author of the Vanishing Ireland book series told The Daily Beast: “I see it as another step in Ireland’s advance to becoming one of most liberal democracies on Earth. There has been so much change here in the space of 20 years. If in 2000 AD, you’d predicted Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley becoming pals, or Queen Elizabeth bowing her head for those who died in the fight for Irish freedom, or the country having a 39-year-old half-Indian gay doctor as our Taoiseach, or that the Irish people would vote in favour of same sex marriage you’d have been sent to your bedroom to sleep it off.”
Although abortion was never legal in Ireland, a constitutional amendment was introduced in 1983 which gave an equal right to life to a pregnant mother and her unborn child at the urging of the Catholic Church concerned about any effort to emulate Roe v. Wade in Ireland. It was passed in a referendum, and represents one of the church’s last great victories in social policy in Ireland.
The 8th amendment, as it was known, led to a steady stream of harrowing absurdities, among them women forced to carry babies with no chance of survival to term, child rape victims being refused abortions and even women for whom pregnancy presented a known fatal risk being denied abortions in Ireland.
Such women (and children) were forced to travel overseas to get abortions. Between January 1980 and December 2016, at least 170,216 women and girls travelled from the Republic of Ireland to access abortion services overseas, according to the Irish Family Planning Association.
“The 8th” has faced numerous challenges in the courts, most notoriously the X case in 1992, in which an anonymized 12-year-old rape victim was initially prevented from traveling to the U.K. for an abortion, but later permitted to do so.
It wasn’t until a woman named Savita Halappanavar died in 2012 after being refused an abortion in an Irish hospital—she begged for the procedure to be carried out but was told by staff that Ireland was “a Catholic country”—that the government legislated to allow abortion to be carried out if the mother’s life was at risk. (Even after that harrowing news story, 31 lawmakers out of a total of 158 voted against it.)
Today, Savita’s father said, from his home in India, “I want to thank you so much. I want to say ‘Thank you’ to our brothers and sisters in Ireland for voting Yes. It is very important. There has been really a lot, too much struggle for the Irish ladies.”
The Irish Times columnist Miriam Lord responded to the vote by saying, “It leaves no doubt. The Irish people have taken ownership of their abortion issue. They have taken it out of the hands of unrepresentative lobby groups and celibate clerics and decided how they want to approach it.”