Ireland votes by landslide to legalise abortion

Leo Varadkar vows legal terminations by end of year after huge vote for change

Ireland has voted by a landslide to repeal its near-total ban on abortion, an extraordinary victory for women’s rights that seals the country’s transformation from bastion of religious conservatism to one of Europe’s most tolerant democracies.

Nearly two in three Irish voters opted to repeal the eighth amendment to the constitution, defying opinion polls that suggested the election could come down to the wire.

The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who had campaigned for a repeal, welcomed the result. “What we have seen today is the culmination of a quiet revolution [that has been taking place] for the past 10 or 20 years.”

The referendum – in which 66.4% voted Yes, a majority of 706,349 – drew the highest turnout for a ballot on social issues, and the result shows a deep commitment to reform despite an often acrimonious campaign.

“We are actually a nation that is united, and we want to make this change,” said Varadkar, who was mobbed by ecstatic Yes voters when he appeared at Dublin Castle to announce the final result. All but one of Ireland’s 40 constituencies voted Yes with Donegal voting 51.9% in favour of No.

Map of referendum results

Support appeared to cross almost every divide – old and young, urban and rural, rich and poor – defying some predictions that the liberal capital might force change on conservative countryside areas. The turnout was 64.1%, the third highest for a referendum in Ireland since the adoption of the constitution in 1937. The highest was the 1972 question on joining the European Economic Community, at 70.88%.

Exit poll results

The scale of the victory makes it almost impossible for opponents to challenge the laws that the government must now pass, which are expected to allow abortion on request up to 12 weeks and under stricter conditions beyond that. Varadkar said he hoped legislation would be enacted by the end of the year.

The groundswell of support for change also puts renewed pressure on Northern Ireland, now the only place in Britain and Ireland where women cannot access legal abortion on request. Sarah Wollaston, the Tory chair of the health select committee at Westminster, said: “This is a great result for women in the Republic of Ireland, and now it’s time for people in Northern Ireland to have their say in their own referendum.”

The Labour MP Stella Creasy said she would be asking the Commons “to back legislation to bring the UK’s abortion laws into the 21st century”.

Tears, joy and disbelief greeted the first exit polls late on Friday evening, and even when official counting began on Saturday morning, many supporters were still dazed by emotion.

“I’m really overwhelmed and proud,” said Dominique McMullan, 31, wiping away tears. “With the marriage equality referendum and this, we are leading the way – we are a new country. The old Ireland is gone.”

Forty years ago Irish women could not even buy a condom legally, divorce was banned and abortion almost unmentionable in public. So for many supporters, the wave of public support for repeal sealed a remarkable national transformation.

Still it was a bittersweet victory. McMullan, like many other women and men, chose to start the day at a mural of Savita Halappanavar, a 31- year-old dentist who died after she was refused an abortion in 2012. Her death spurred the campaign for change. “I came down especially to pay tribute,” McMullan said. “It’s brilliant that this has happened, but we can’t forget the people who died because of our laws.”

Halappanavar’s father told the Observer by phone from India that justice had been done for his daughter: “I have no words to express my gratitude to the people of Ireland.”

There had been fears that, as with Brexit and Donald Trump’s election, the No campaign would muster a last-minute surge. In the end, though, the silent majority won through. The provision, enshrined in the constitution since 1983, gave “the unborn” equal rights to pregnant women, making abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest and severe danger to the mother. Irish law also bans ordering or taking abortion pills, under threat of up to 14 years in jail.

“It’s a new dawn,” said Danielle Graham, “We didn’t expect it to be this big. We just wanted not to feel like criminals in our own country.”

Many in the Yes camp attributed the victory to the many women who defied social taboos to speak out about their own abortions. “The spell of shame has been broken,” said Quentin Nea, a 61-year-old teacher from Dublin, old enough to have campaigned against the eighth amendment when it was introduced.

Much of the repeal campaign focused on the high numbers of women ordering abortion pills online or forced to travel to Britain for a termination. “They showed that abortion was already here, we are just trying to make it safe and regulated,” said Denise Charlton, from the Together for Yes campaign.

The result is also an overwhelming defeat for the Catholic church, three months before Pope Francis makes his first trip to Ireland. There was no comment from the Vatican or the Irish bishops. “It’s nice to see that we are finally throwing off the shackles of the Catholic church,” said Sarah McCormack, 25, as she left flowers at the Halappanavar mural.

Anti-abortion campaigners have described the decision as a “tragedy of historic proportions”. The Save the 8th campaign communications director, John McGuirk, said the unborn child no longer had a right to life recognised by the Irish state. “Shortly, legislation will be introduced that will allow babies to be killed in our country, We will oppose that legislation.”


Henry McDonald, Emma Graham-Harrison and Sinead Baker in Dublin

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