IRELAND has voted on whether to legalise abortion in a historic referendum.
Thousands of women from Ireland had been forced to seek terminations in Britain because they were prohibited from obtaining them in Ireland unless their lives are in danger. The exit polls suggest this vote will change everything.
Times Newspapers Ltd Last year just 16 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland
When was the abortion referendum in Ireland?
The polls officially opened on May 25, with many Irish citizens around the world flying home to cast their votes.
Around 2,000 residents on islands off Counties Donegal, Mayo and Galway went to the polls on Thursday, a day ahead of the rest of the country.
They are voting on a referendum on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the constitution, which prevents the Irish Government from legalising the procedure.
The Government intends to allow terminations within the first 12 weeks in the event of a yes vote.
Counting began on the morning of Saturday May 26, with a result expected later in the day.
What do the Exit Polls say?
Two major exit polls predicted a landslide victory for the YES campaign.
An RTE poll suggested that almost 70 per cent of voters wanted to see an end to the termination ban.
And a second survey of voters conducted by The Irish Times suggested the margin of those in favour of liberalising the law would be 68 per cent to 32 per cent.
It follows one of the highest reported turnouts for a referendum.
Voters in the once deeply Catholic country were asked if they wish to scrap a prohibition that was enshrined in the constitution by referendum 35 years ago, and partly lifted in 2013 only for cases where the mother's life is in danger.
Save the 8th, which led the no campaign, has conceded defeat, saying in a statement on its website that Irish voters have perpetrated “a tragedy of historic proportions”.
PA:Press Association Ireland looks set to repeal its abortion laws
What were the opinion polls predicting?
Opinion polls showed a strong lead for Yes soon after the referendum was announced earlier this year.
But leading up to the vote, they narrowed and No campaigners declared themselves confident of pulling off a surprise win.
Experts believe the large proportion of undecided voters could swing the result, as well as how successful each campaign was at getting "soft supporters" out to vote.
Younger people and city dwellers were more likely to favour reform than older folk in the country, polls showed.
Is abortion currently legal in Ireland?
Abortion is available in Ireland only when there is a proven risk to the woman's life, including through suicide.
Many pregnant women simply travel to Britain or have an illegal termination with pills bought online.
In a series of votes in April, the citizens' assembly, set up to consider the issue, recommended that abortion should be available up to 12 weeks after conception "with no restriction as to reason".
The vote for change was overwhelming, by 52 to 29.
On Friday, May 25, Ireland will hold a referendum on whether to repeal its ban on abortion in almost all circumstances.
A cabinet meeting is set to take place on how the question at the heart of the referendum should be phrased.
Last year the UN stated that Ireland's laws on abortion were "cruel and inhuman".
Reuters Exit polls suggest a clear victory for the yes campaign
What has the Taoiseach said?
Voting Yes to liberalising Ireland's strict abortion rules would help remove the country's "legacy of shame" over its treatment of women, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said.
He added: "If there is a Yes vote Ireland will be the same place.
"Just a place that's a little bit more compassionate and a little bit more understanding than it has been in the past."
He added: "We're really encouraging everyone to come out and vote on Friday in what is a once-in-a-generation decision for the Irish people."
Is the law different in Northern Ireland?
The NHS routinely provides free abortions to women in most of the United Kingdom.
But abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland when a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Last year 16 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland, but women's rights groups estimate that around 1,000 women travel to Britain each year for terminations.
They had finance this themselves – along with travel and other costs.
But now the UK Government has pledged to foot the bill for those women from the province who come to England for the procedure.
Theresa May's hand was forced by Labour MP Stella Creasy who put forward an amendment to the Queen's speech which would give Northern Irish women access to abortions on the NHS if they travel to the UK mainland.
The proposal was set to be supported by a handful of Tories as well as most opposition MPs – possibly giving it enough votes to pass.
Getty Images Labour's Stella Creasy has managed to force a vote on abortions for Northern Irish women
That would have placed the whole Queen’s Speech in jeopardy, because the DUP are staunchly anti-abortion and may have refused to back a Government programme which includes the controversial amendment.
If Mrs May lost the main vote on the Queen’s Speech, she would have had to resign as PM and give Jeremy Corbyn the chance to form an alternative government.
The same afternoon Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that Northern Irish women would be able to access free abortions in England in a bid to prevent a rebellion.
Justine Greening, the Equalities Minister, then sent a letter to MPs confirming that the Government Equalities Office would foot the bill for any women from Northern Ireland who come to England in order to have an abortion.
She wrote: “At present women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment, and from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen.”
Pro-choice activists in Northern Ireland have been demanding as a minimum a relaxation of laws so girls and women can access a termination in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and pregnancy through sexual crime.
The National Health Service routinely provides free abortions to women in most of the United Kingdom. Pictured is a Marie Stopes clinic
Why is it different from the rest of the UK?
The 1967 Abortion Act, which established legal abortion, has never applied in Northern Ireland.
In England, Scotland and Wales an abortion can be legally carried out up to the 24-week limit.
It can be legal beyond that limit in cases where the mother's health is threatened or if there is a substantial risk the baby will have serious disabilities.
A 2008 move to extend the 1967 act to Northern Ireland was blocked by Harriet Harman, then Leader of the Commons.
Political parties in Northern Ireland are divided on abortion.
The socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has consistently opposed widespread access to abortion.
In 2016 Sinn Fein changed its anti-abortion policy to allow terminations in cases of foetal abnormality — but stopped short of calling for easier access to NHS-provided abortions.
Bob Geldof, Sharon Horgan and other Irish celebrities show their support for the abortion referendum
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