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Irish Women Turn Out in Droves to Repeal Constitutional Ban on Abortion

"This vote can change Ireland into a more caring, compassionate place."

pro-choice protest

For nearly three decades, reproductive rights advocates have fought to overturn a ban on abortion in Ireland. (Photo: Abortion Rights Campaign)

Ireland expected the higher-than-usual voter turnout to continue into the evening on Friday as Irish citizens headed to ballot boxes in droves and women living abroad returned to their home country to weigh in on a measure that would repeal the Eight Amendement of the Irish Constitution, which bans abortion unless a pregnant woman's life is at risk.

Reproductive rights advocates have created the pro-choice Together for Yes campaign to repeal the amendment, which grants equal rights to women and fetuses, and was added to the constitution in 1983. Votes will be counted beginning Saturday morning, with an announcement expected during the afternoon.

Some Irish citizens have framed the debate as "the most contentious social issue that we have had since independence," with pro-choice and anti-choice campaigners—many with ties to the Catholic church, which has a strong influence over the country's citizens—frequently canvassing with pamphlets and marching in the streets over the past almost three decades.

Reproductive rights advocates have long condemend the culture of shame that the amendment has fostered and sought to draw attention to women who have died due to medical complications or taking their own lives after being denied abortions—even in cases of rape and incest—despite the fact that women who are suicidal are supposed to be able to terminate a pregnancy.

"If we don't remove the (Eighth) Amendment from the constitution our doctors and lawmakers can't do anything for women. They can't do anything for women who have been raped, who are children themselves, or who have been given the heartbreaking news of fatal fetal abnormality," Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Friday as voting started, according to USA Today. "If the referendum doesn't pass these women will continue to have to travel abroad in their thousands."

If the repeal effort is successful, the government has vowed to introduce legislation later this year to establish the circumstances under which Irish women may pursue the procedure. Ahead of the vote, women have come forward to share their stories about unplanned pregnancies and their limited options for medical in their country. Methods for accessing abortions have included traveling abroad for the procedure and importing pills ordered online. 

At a press conference organized by Together for Yes, the mother of a 25-year-old woman with type-one diabetes and polycystic ovaries—who had been taking contraceptive pills, recently hospitalized with a serious illness, and told by doctors that an unplanned pregnancy could be dangerous for her—shared a story about ordering abortion pills for her daughter on the internet.

"I think for lots of people it came as news maybe that such pills were available, that they were being imported, that they were being consumed by women and girls with absolutely no medical supervision whatsoever, in secrecy, in silence and with a fear of potential criminal sanction," said Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who also spoke at the press conference.

The Irish Times, which maintained a live blog about the national referendum on Friday, reports that 3.3 million Irish citizens are registered to vote. At the Dublin airport, women arrived wearing black shirts emblazonened with REPEAL.

"If the vote passes it would be another social-change milestone for Ireland after it legalized contraception (1979), divorce (1995), and same-sex marriage (2015)," USA Today reports. "It would also leave just three places in Europe where abortion is illegal unless a woman's life is at risk: the micro-states of Andorra and San Marino, and Malta."

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