DUBLIN — The Irish seemed poised to end one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the developed world after voters went to the polls Friday in a wrenching, historic referendum that both sides said would show what kind of country Ireland is.
The Irish Times exit poll, conducted by Ipsos MRBI, had 68 percent favoring repeal and 32 percent against, with a margin of error of +/-1.5 percentage points. The poll released by Irish broadcaster RTE, commissioned in association with Irish universities, had 69.4 percent voting yes to repeal and 30.6 percent voting no, with a margin of error of +/-1.6 percentage points.
The official count of the vote will not begin until Saturday morning, with a final tally expected later Saturday.
If the official results follow the exit polls, Ireland will mark a remarkable shift — from a deeply Catholic and conservative country that maintained strict bans not only on abortion but also divorce and used to shut unwed mothers away in prisonlike “laundries,” to a nation that now supports same-sex marriage, divorce and abortion rights.
Reports from polling stations around the country indicated high turnout. About 3.3 million Irish had registered to vote, and many appeared to be returning from abroad to cast ballots.
On social media, the hashtag #hometovote was popular. At Dublin Airport, waves of women arrived — many of them wearing “repeal” T-shirts and with “Yes!” stickers on their luggage.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who supports repeal, told reporters Friday that the high turnout was probably good for his side. “Not taking anything for granted, of course, but quietly confident,” Varadkar said.
In Ireland, seeking or providing an abortion has been punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Since 2013, there has been an exception for when a mother’s life is at risk.
If the repeal vote wins, Ireland’s political leadership has promised that Parliament will quickly pass a new law guaranteeing unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, and beyond that in cases of fatal fetal abnormalities or serious risks to a mother’s health.
That would bring Ireland’s access to abortion more in line with the other 27 members of the European Union.
Although Ireland bans the procedure, it does not restrict travel to procure an abortion. Since 1980, more than 170,000 women have traveled by ferry or airplane to Scotland, England or Wales to get an abortion there.
Researchers estimate that about 3,500 make the trip each year and that another 2,000 end their pregnancies with pills they buy over the Internet and smuggle into Ireland.
Campaigns to lift the abortion ban have emphasized that it is a woman’s right to decide what to do with her body — and that Ireland should be a compassionate society, not one that forces pregnant women to travel to another country to receive a procedure that should be available at home.
Kevin Keane, 23, is the president of the Students’ Union at Trinity College Dublin. He’s been campaigning hard for repeal — a position he says reflects a dynamic, young, European outlook and a turning-away from the scandal-ridden Catholic Church.
“So many people in Ireland have rejected religion. We were raised with it; we went to Catholic schools, and growing up with that rhetoric made people hate it,” Keane said.
Three years ago, Ireland became the first country to back same-sex marriage in a popular vote, confirming a profound shift in Irish social attitudes.
Keane, who is studying law, had one worry — that men who supported abortion rights would stay home. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t think I should vote on this. I think this is something the women should decide.’ ”
The “No” campaigns stressed the “human rights” of the fetus. Some Irish activists have called abortion “murder,” but many campaigners have tried a softer tone, saying Ireland should “love both” the pregnant woman and her unborn baby.
“Ireland has treated its daughters terribly,” said Marylou Doherty, 66, a teacher who has been an active antiabortion activist since the 1983 campaign.
Where are the fathers and family to help a young mother cope with a crisis pregnancy? she asked.
“We know the majority of abortions are about their lifestyle,” Doherty said. “It just doesn’t suit them to have a baby at this time.”
Doherty maintained that making abortion more difficult to obtain forced women to think more about their decisions and perhaps to seek help or put a baby up for adoption.
Amanda Ferguson contributed to this report.