BY GREGORY KATZ and RENATA BRITO
DUBLIN (AP) — A leading anti-abortion group said Saturday that Ireland’s historic abortion referendum has resulted in a “tragedy of historic proportions,” admitting defeat as two exit polls predict an overwhelming victory for those seeking to overturn the country’s strict ban on terminations.
The projected result, not yet confirmed by an official count, was hailed by abortion rights activists 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 results are not expected until Saturday afternoon.
But John McGuirk, spokesman for the Save the 8th group — which refers to the eighth amendment in the constitution which effectively bans terminations — told Irish television Saturday morning that many Irish citizens will not recognize the country they are waking up in.
“You can still passionately believe that the decision of the people is wrong, as I happen to do, and accept it,” said McGuirk. “I don’t think you’ll find many people on our side of the referendum who don’t accept the result. That would be wrong.”
The Irish Times and RTE television exit polls suggest the Irish people have voted by nearly 70 percent to repeal a 1983 constitutional amendment that requires authorities to treat a fetus and its mother as equals under the law. Currently, terminations are only allowed when a woman’s life is at risk.
If the projected numbers hold up, the referendum would be a landmark in Irish women’s fight for abortion rights. It would also 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 Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone said Saturday 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 1.6 percent.
If the “yes” forces seeking a constitutional change prevail, Ireland’s parliament will be charged with coming up with new abortion laws.
The government proposes to allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy with later terminations allowed in some cases.
If confirmed by the official tally, the large margin of victory predicted by the exit polls would greatly strengthen the government’s hand when dealing with abortion opponents in parliament.
Leo Enright contributed.
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