â€œItâ€™s a Yesâ€ read a banner front-page headline in the countryâ€™s best-selling newspaper, the Irish Independent after two exit polls suggested a landslide win, which Â described it as â€œa massive moment in Irelandâ€™s social historyâ€.
An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI exit poll suggested that voters in the once deeply Catholic nation hadÂ on FridayÂ backed change by 68 percent to 32 percent. An RTE/Behaviour & Attitudes survey put the margin at 69 percent to 31 percent.
If confirmed, the outcome will be the latest milestone on a path of change for a country which only legalised divorce by a razor thin majority in 1995 before becoming the first in the world to adopt gay marriage by popular vote three years ago.
Voters were asked if they wish to scrap the eighth amendment to the constitution, which gives an unborn child and its mother equal rights to life. The consequent prohibition on abortion was partly lifted in 2013 for cases where the motherâ€™s life was in danger.
â€œItâ€™s looking like we will make historyÂ tomorrow,â€ Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who was in favor of change, saidÂ on FridayÂ night on Twitter.
Vote-counting began at 0800 GMT across the countryÂ on Saturday, with the first indication of official results expected mid-morning. Campaigners for change, wearing â€œRepealâ€ jumpers and â€œYesâ€ badges, gathered at the main Dublin count center, many in tears and hugging each other.
â€œItâ€™s incredible. For all the years and years and years weâ€™ve been trying to look after women and not been able to look after women, this means everything,â€ said Mary Higgins, obstetrician and Together For Yes campaigner.
â€œYesâ€ campaigners argued that with over 3,000 women traveling to Britain each year for terminations – a right enshrined in a 1992 referendum – and others ordering pills illegally online, abortion is already a reality in Ireland.
For the â€œNoâ€ campaign, the outcome was seen as a disaster. â€œWhat Irish voters did yesterday is a tragedy of historic proportions,â€ Save The 8th said in a statement. â€œHowever, a wrong does not become a right simply because a majority support it.â€
No social issue has divided Irelandâ€™s 4.8 million people as sharply as abortion, which was pushed up the political agenda by the death in 2012 of a 31-year-old Indian immigrant from a septic miscarriage after she was refused a termination.
Campaigners left flowers and candles at a large mural of the woman, Savita Halappanavar, in central Dublin.
The Irish Times exit poll showed overwhelming majorities in all age groups under 65 voted for change, including almost nine in every 10 voters under the age of 24.
The fiercely contested vote divided political parties, saw the once-mighty church take a back seat, with the campaign defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.
Although not on the ballot paper, the â€œNoâ€ camp sought to seize on government plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the referendum is carried, calling it a step too far for most voters.
Â â€œThere is no prospect of the legislation not being passedâ€ Save The 8th spokesman McGuirk told state broadcaster RTE, before appealing for tolerance and respect from â€œthose who find themselves in the majority nowâ€.
The result is likely to be followed by a battle in parliament on how exactly access to abortion will be increased.
â€œWe now have to hold the government to what they have said, that they want to see a situation where abortion will be rare,â€ said leading anti-abortion campaigner Cora Sherlock.
Colm Oâ€™Riain, a 44-year-old school teacher who was at one of the main Dublin county centers with his infant son Ruarai who was born 14 weeks premature in November, was also looking to the future.
â€œFor him (his son), itâ€™s a different Ireland that weâ€™re moving onto. Itâ€™s an Ireland that is more tolerant, more inclusive and where he can be whatever he wants without fear of recrimination,â€ he said.Â (Reuters)