WORLD
25/05/2018 4:12 PM AEST | Updated 26/05/2018 5:02 AM AEST

Ireland's Abortion Referendum: Voters Head To The Polls For Historic Ballot

Max Rossi / Reuters
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar votes as Ireland holds a referendum on liberalizing its law on abortion.

Voters in Ireland are heading to the polls this morning to decide whether the country should repeal its abortion laws, which are some of the most restrictive in the world.

In the country’s sixth referendum on the issue, Irish people will vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on whether the constitution’s Eighth Amendment - which gives pregnant women and unborn fetuses an equal right to life - should be repealed.

The referendum has seen Irish people living all over the world return to their home country to vote, with others who have been out of Ireland too long to qualify flying back to campaign for their camp.

According to the country’s Local Government Department, more than 3.2 million people are registered to vote. 

The polls, which opened at 7am on Friday, will close at 10pm, with the results expected to be announced on Saturday.  

HuffPost UK is in Dublin with Amy Garland, 24, Emilia MacDermot, 24, and Leigh Garland, 19, who are all voting yes.

Voters have been barred from wearing campaign pins or jumpers while casting their ballot in the highly-charged referendum, with canvassing banned within 50 metres of polling stations.

The vote could see a radical change in women’s access to abortions in Ireland.

Emilia said: “The undecideds are a massive worry. There are people who agree with abortion in the cases of rape, incest and FFA, but say they don’t ‘support abortion on demand.’

“Our grandmother is 85 years old and doesn’t feel it’s her place to take the rights away from young women, so although she doesn’t agree with abortion, she won’t be voting, and I’m proud of that.”

Under the country’s current legislation on abortion, terminating a pregnancy is effectively illegal. Women who breach the law can face up to 14 years in prison.

Emily is half-Italian, a country where abortion has been legal in Italy since the 70s. “It feels unfair that only half of me has the right to have an abortion!”

While Irish politicians voted to allow terminations under “limited circumstances” in 2013 - including when the mother’s life is under threat as a result of the pregnancy - just 25 legal abortions were carried out in Ireland in 2016. 

In the same year, 3,265 Irish women travelled to the UK for a termination. Amy said: “I think we all know someone who’s had to travel to have an abortion.

“For people who do manage to get abroad, if they come back and they have complications, like bleeding, like haemorrhaging, it’s very risky for them to seek aftercare here. People are scared.

“Technically, they’ll be punished. People say ‘oh no one has been prosecuted’ but it’s the law, and they’re scared.”

The cost of travelling abroad is also an issue. Leigh said: “Abortion in Ireland is a class issue. If the 8th amendment stays as it is, the same people who can afford to go abroad will keep going abroad.

“The ones who can’t will stay here and bring up an unwanted child in poverty.”

If current laws are overturned, women will be able to legally obtain an abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and up to 24 weeks in cases where the woman’s life or health is at risk. 

Terminations will also be allowed if the unborn baby had a fatal abnormality.

Not everyone had an easy time getting to polls - a Dublin-bound passenger jet carrying dozens of voters home was hit by another plane preparing for take-off at Stansted Airport.

Both planes were on the taxiway when the tail of the Ryanair aircraft was clipped by the wing of a Primera flight to Malaga, Ryanair said in a statement.

No one was injured and normal flights have resumed.

Campaigners calling for a No vote have said they believe the outcome of the referendum is too close to call.

Save the 8th campaign chairwoman Niamh Ui Bhriain said they were encouraged by the high turnout being reported on Friday morning.

She said more than 4,000 volunteers were helping voters get to and from the polls on Friday.

“The Irish people are very clear about what they are voting on today – this is abortion on demand,” Ui Bhriain claimed.

“There is a growing and quiet confidence that all the work done by our campaign, and the other campaigns on the No side, will pay dividend this evening.”

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina cast their votes in Dublin on Friday morning.

Around two hours later Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a vocal advocate for repeal, voted in the city.

“I always get a little buzz from voting, it just feels like it is democracy in action,” Varadkar said after emerging from the polling station at Castleknock.

“Not taking anything for granted of course, but quietly confident – there’s been good turnout across the country so far and hoping for a Yes vote tomorrow.

“Obviously, I would be encouraging everyone to come out and vote, a high turnout would be to the advantage of the yes campaign.”

He urged voters not to be distracted by the sunny weather and exercise their democratic right.

Leader of the main opposition party, Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin, voted to repeal in his constituency in Cork while Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald also cast a Yes vote in Dublin.

However, her Sinn Fein party colleague and vocal anti-abortion campaigner Peadar Toibin called on Irish people to vote No to “abortion on demand”.

“The irony that the referendum on abortion is being held on International Missing Children’s Day will not be lost on many Irish people,” he tweeted.

“Those on the margins of society suffer most from abortion. Vote No to Abortion on Demand.”

A total of 3.3 million citizens are registered to vote, with 6,500 polling stations open across the country.

The Catholic Church is among influential voices arguing that the life of the unborn should be sacrosanct, but the retain campaign faces a major challenge from a Yes camp which has portrayed itself as modernising and in step with international opinion.

The debate during eight weeks of campaigning has been divisive, with the leaders of all the main political parties, including Fine Gael leader Mr Varadkar, backing change.

They argued that a Yes vote represented the compassionate choice for thousands of Irish women forced to travel to England for the procedure.

Opposing them was a vocal No camp, including the bishops, which insisted the life of the child is sacrosanct and interference in that right is immoral.