Abortion referendum in Ireland likely to result in repeal of ban, exit polls suggest

With official counting set to begin following Friday's referendum, Ireland may soon lift its decades-old ban on abortions as exit polls suggest the country is overwhelmingly in favor of repealing the eighth amendment to its constitution.

Official results were not expected until Saturday afternoon, but the exit polls -- released by the Irish Times and RTE television -- indicate that the 1983 amendment, which effectively bans abortions unless in rare cases when a woman’s life is at risk, will be repealed.

All paper ballots must be counted and tallied for the official vote, as the exit polls are merely predictions.

If the vote is a “yes,” then Ireland’s parliament will be tasked with producing new abortion laws.

The government has proposed to allow abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy with later terminations allowed in some cases.

Pro-choice activists argue the current strict abortion regulations encourage women to travel internationally to undergo the procedure, and a “yes” vote would be a win for woman’s equality rights. Opponents view it as a betrayal of Ireland's commitment to protect the unborn in the largely Roman Catholic country.

The country’s leaders were in favor of repeal, calling it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to liberalize some of Europe's strictest abortion rules.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar tweeted his support for the repeal before a moratorium on campaigning took effect Thursday.

The historic vote comes amid a wave of liberalization in recent years, with the country voting to allow same-sex marriage three years ago and Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister taking office last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.