The people of Ireland are voting today in a historic referendum on whether to repeal or retain a constitutional clause protecting the rights of the unborn that has produced one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world.
The outcome of the vote, expected to be close following a polarised and often acrimonious campaign, will either confirm Ireland on its journey from a conservative Catholic country to a socially liberal one, or indicate that social reforms over recent decades have reached their limit.
Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s taoiseach, has warned that the referendum is a “once in a generation decision”. If the proposal to repeal the constitutional clause is defeated, it is likely to be at least 35 years before voters get another say on the matter, he said this week.
At stake is article 40.3.3 of the Irish constitution, known as the eighth amendment. In place since 1983, it puts the “right to life of the unborn” on an equal status with the life of a pregnant woman. It underpins a near-total ban on abortion in Ireland, even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.
Seeking or providing an abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. There has been an exception for when a mother’s life is at risk only since 2013, when a woman died from septicaemia following a drawn-out miscarriage.
As a result of the stringent controls on abortion, each year about 3,500 women travel abroad, mostly to the UK, to terminate their pregnancies – and an estimated 2,000 women illegally procure abortion pills online and self-administer them with no medical supervision.
If the vote is in favour of repeal, the government plans to introduce legislation permitting unrestricted abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions up to the 23rd week will be permitted when a woman’s health is threatened and in cases of a fatal foetal abnormality.
Polling stations across Ireland open at 7am and close at 10pm. Counting will begin on Saturday morning, with the final result expected to be formally announced in the late afternoon. However, the outcome may be clear earlier as results come in from key constituencies. Dublin is expected to be strongly yes-voting, and rural areas more inclined to vote no.
The votes of thousands of Irish expatriates travelling home to take part in the referendum could be significant. Some reported on social media that they were coming from as far away as Los Angeles, Australia, Vietnam and Argentina in order to cast their votes.
Lauryn Canny tweeted: “I’m coming #HomeToVote. Will be travelling 5,169 miles from LA to Dublin and will be thinking of every Irish woman who has had to travel to access healthcare that should be available in their own country. Let’s do this, Ireland!”
Colette Kelleher tweeted: “My lovely son is coming #hometovote. This poor student used his birthday money to buy plane ticket home … He will #voteyes with his Dad. For his sister, his Mum & women of Ireland.”
The latest opinion polls indicate a majority for repeal, although undecided voters – estimated at between 14% and 20% of the total – could hold sway. Two polls published this week showed small increases in the yes vote, with one putting it at 56% and another at 52%.
One poll also used a technique known as “wisdom of the crowds”, asking people to estimate the result of the referendum. The outcome was 56-44% in favour of yes.
Private polling for Fianna Fail, whose parliamentary representatives are divided on the referendum, is believed to predict a similar outcome.
Friday’s referendum comes three years after Ireland became the first country in the world to back same-sex marriage in a popular vote, confirming a profound shift in Ireland’s social attitudes. Twenty years earlier, Ireland voted by the tightest of margins in a referendum to allow divorce, which was previously banned under the constitution.
Changes in social attitudes have been in lockstep with the declining influence of the Catholic church, once the dominant voice in Ireland and a crucial player in the drive to add an abortion ban to the constitution.
But revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up by priests in recent years have shaken Ireland’s faith in the church, and the internet and social media have challenged the authority of the pulpit.
Although 78% of the population still identified as Catholic in 2016, the proportion is significantly smaller among people under the age of 35. Between 1972 and 2011, weekly church attendance fell from 91% to 30%. In Dublin, it dropped to 14%.
Social media has been an important battleground for both sides of the campaign. Earlier this month, Google announced a ban on all ads relating to the referendum and Facebook announced that it was blocking all foreign referendum advertising.
But there has also been an intense ground battle, with campaigners for both sides canvassing door-to-door, holding public rallies and meetings, and handing out leaflets on the streets in a bid to win over undecided voters.
The yes campaign has focused on the argument that abortion is a reality for thousands of Irish woman, but the constitutional ban merely exports the issue at huge emotional, physical and financial cost to a woman in a crisis situation.
The no campaign has repeatedly warned that “extremist” legislation would follow repeal. In fact, the government’s proposals would bring Ireland into line with most of Europe.