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Referendum in Ireland could lift strict ban on abortion

A woman leaves a polling station after casting her vote in the referendum on the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, in Dublin, Ireland, Friday May 25, 2018. The referendum on whether to repeal the country's strict anti-abortion law is being seen by anti-abortion activists as a last-ditch stand against what they view as a European norm of abortion-on-demand, while for pro-abortion rights advocates, it is a fundamental moment for declaring an Irish woman's right to choose. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Ireland's referendum Friday represented more than a vote on whether to end the country's strict abortion ban. It was a battle for the very soul of a traditionally conservative Roman Catholic country that has seen a wave of liberalization in recent years.

The country's leaders support a "yes," an outcome that would repeal a 1983 constitutional amendment requiring authorities to treat a fetus and its mother as equals under the law. They say it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to liberalize some of Europe's strictest abortion rules.

It's also a key indicator of Ireland's trajectory, three years after the country voted to allow same-sex marriages and a year after it elected a gay prime minister.

Theresa Sweeney, a repeal supporter, was one of the first people to arrive at the North Grand Church polling station in Dublin.

"I'm not usually an early riser, but I couldn't wait to get down here to vote," she said. "I feel like I've waited all of my adult life to have a say on this."

Vera Rooney cast her ballot at the same polling place.

"It is a hard decision but I just feel I don't have the right to take life," she said. "I think life is sacred and for that reason I had to vote no."

The referendum will decide whether the eighth amendment of the constitution is repealed or stays in place.

The amendment requires authorities to equally protect the right to life of a mother and that of a fetus, from the moment of conception. That effectively bans all abortions in Ireland, except in cases when the woman's life is at risk. Having an illegal abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and several thousand Irish women travel each year to get abortions in neighboring Britain.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, a doctor, voted in favor of repeal Friday morning at Laurel Lodge in Castleknock.

"Not taking anything for granted of course, but quietly confident," he said, adding. "A high turnout I think would be to the advantage to the 'yes' campaign, and obviously the upside of a good sunny day in Ireland is that people come out to vote."

Thousands of Irish people abroad have travelled home to take part in the historic referendum, and supporters of repeal gathered at Dublin Airport to give arrivals an ecstatic welcome.

Several activists held a large "Welcome Home" banner, while others held a placard reading "Thank you for making the journey so other women don't have to" — a reference to the way Irish women seeking abortions have had to leave the country to obtain them.

Tara Flynn, who 11 years ago flew to the Netherlands for an abortion she could not get at home, said she planned to vote "yes" to make sure future generations of women don't endure what she did.

Flynn, 48, said the experience left her feeling isolated, filled with shame, and excluded.

She said her "yes" vote would be a vote for solidarity and compassion. "It is a vote to say, I don't send you away anymore."

Campaigning was not allowed Friday, but Dublin was still filled with signs and banners urging citizens to vote "yes" or "no." Many of the anti-abortion signs showed photographs of fetuses.

"Yes" campaigners urged visitors to the popular Temple Bar neighborhood to post their thoughts about the referendum on post-it notes.

The hundreds of notes showed overwhelming support for repeal — but foreign visitors can't vote, so the display does not offer much guidance on what the actual results will be.

Voting has already taken place on Ireland's remote islands so that paper ballots can be taken to the mainland and counted in time.

Letters to the editor published Friday in the Irish Independent newspaper contained several emotional arguments urging voters to reject the repeal movement.

"If we vote 'yes', every unborn, wanted and unwanted, will have zero rights," wrote Frances Kelleher, from Killarney. "I do not believe the smart people of Ireland want this unrestricted, abortion-on-demand bill. I will be voting no."

If citizens vote in favor of repeal, new abortion laws will then be discussed in parliament. The government proposes that terminations be allowed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Later abortions would be allowed in special cases.

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