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Campaigner: "No going back" for women's rights in Ireland

Last Updated May 26, 2018 8:54 AM EDT

DUBLIN -- A leading campaigner for repealing Ireland's constitutional ban on abortions said on Saturday it's a "monumental day for women in Ireland" after voters appeared to have overwhelmingly backed liberalizing the country's strict abortion laws. Orla O'Connor, co-director of the Together for Yes group, said Saturday: "This is about women taking their rightful place in Irish society, finally."

Votes for Friday's historic referendum are still being counted, but two exit polls predict a landslide victory for those who want to repeal a constitutional ban on abortions. 

O'Connor said the vote is a "rejection of an Ireland that treated women as second-class citizens."

"This is about women's equality and this day brings massive change, monumental change for women in Ireland, and there is no going back,"  O'Connor said. 

Voters selected "yes" or "no" on the question of repealing Ireland's 8th Amendment, which banned all abortions except when a mother's life is at risk. In Europe, only Malta and Poland have similar laws. Among those casting their ballots were thousands of returning expats like Sorcha Lowry who flew in from New York. 

"I knew I had to spend this money that I didn't have," she said. 

Ireland adopted the ban in 1983, but support has waned as the country has grown more liberal, legalizing divorce and gay marriage. 

On Saturday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar praised the apparent victory in the abortion referendum as "the culmination of a quiet revolution" that has been unfolding in the past 10 to 20 years. 

"The people have spoken," said Varadkar, who campaigned for repealing Ireland's constitutional ban on abortions. "The people have said that we want a modern constitution for a modern country, that we trust women and we respect them to make the right decision and the right choices about their health care."

The prime minister, a medical doctor who came to power last year, spoke to RTE News in advance of the announcement of the referendum's official results, expected later Saturday. He said there appears to be "a greater than 2-to-1 majority in favor of amending our constitution." He said that majority reigned among both men and women, almost all age groups and social classes, and perhaps every constituency in the country.

Meanwhile, one of Ireland's leading anti-abortion groups called the abortion referendum result a "tragedy of historic proportions" in a statement that all but admitted defeat in the historic vote. Spokesman John McGuirk of the Save the 8th group -- which refers to the eighth amendment -- told Irish television Saturday that many Irish citizens will not recognize the country they are waking up in.

McGuirk said it will now be relatively easy for the government to pass more liberal abortion laws in the parliament.

"There is no prospect of the legislation not being passed," he said.

The Irish Times and RTE television exit polls suggest the Irish people have voted to repeal the 1983 constitutional amendment. The exit polls are predictions only, with official results expected Saturday afternoon. Paper ballots must be counted and tallied.

Activists react at the count centre as votes are tallied folowing yesterday's referendum on liberalizing abortion law, in Dublin

Activists react at the count centre as votes are tallied folowing yesterday's referendum on liberalizing abortion law, in Dublin, Ireland, May 26, 2018.

MAX ROSSI/REUTERS

On Saturday, Ireland's Minister for Children and Youth Affairs said she is grateful and emotional over with the apparent decision of voters to repeal the constitutional ban on abortions in Friday's landmark referendum. 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."