Ireland’s prime minister on Saturday hailed the culmination of “a quiet revolution” in what was once one of Europe’s most socially conservative countries after a landslide referendum vote to liberalize highly restrictive laws on abortion. Voters in the once deeply Catholic nation backed the change by two-to-one, a far higher margin than any opinion poll in the run up to the vote had predicted, and allows the government to bring in legislation by the end of the year.
“It’s incredible. For all the years and years and years we’ve been trying to look after women and not been able to look after women, this means everything,” said Mary Higgins, obstetrician and Together For Yes campaigner. For decades, the law forced over 3,000 women to travel to Britain each year for terminations and “Yes” campaigners argued that with others now ordering pills illegally online, abortion was already a reality in Ireland.
The campaign was defined by women publicly sharing their painful experiences of leaving the country for procedures, a key reason why all but one of Ireland’s 40 constituencies voted “Yes”. A-generation chance and voters responded by turning out in droves. A turnout of 64 percent was one of the highest for a referendum. “Today is an historic day for Ireland. A quiet revolution has taken place,” Varadkar, who became Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister last year, said in a speech after the vote.
“Everyone deserves a second chance. This is Ireland’s second chance to treat everyone equally and with compassion and respect. We have voted to look reality in the eye and we did not blink.” The outcome is a new milestone on a path of change for a country which only legalized 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. The once-mighty Catholic Church took a back seat throughout the campaign.
The country’s largest newspaper, the Irish Independent, described the result as “a massive moment in Ireland’s social history”. Campaigners for change, wearing “Repeal” jumpers and “Yes” badges, gathered at count centers, many in tears and hugging each other. Others sang songs in the sunshine outside the main Dublin results center as they awaited the official result.
The large crowd cheered Varadkar as he took to the stage to thank them for “trusting women and respecting their choices”. Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said he believed a middle ground of around 40 percent of voters had decided en masse to allow women and doctors rather than lawmakers and lawyers to decide whether a termination was justified.