DUBLIN (AP) — Irish voters cleared the way for abortions to be legal in their country for the first time by repealing a constitutional ban on the procedure and authorizing legislators to reflect the popular will by giving pregnant women a choice, results from a landmark referendum showed Saturday.
Voters in Friday's referendum supported rescinding the ban, adopted in 1983 as the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, by 66.4 percent to 33.6 percent, the final count showed. The size of the win for abortion rights exceeded expectations and was cast as a historic victory for women's rights.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, speaking after the official tally was announced at crowded Dublin Castle, hailed the momentous outcome as a "once in a generation vote" that showed the electorate's concern "for the next generation."
"The wrenching pain of decades of mistreatment of Irish women cannot be unlived," Varadkar, who backed repeal, said. "However, today we have ensured that it does not have to be lived again."
Opponents of the repeal movement conceded defeat on Saturday morning after exit polls from the night before suggested more than two-thirds of voters had backed repeal.
John McGuirk, spokesman for the Save the 8th group, told Irish television Saturday that many Irish citizens would not recognize the country in which they were waking up. The group said on its website that the referendum's outcome was a "tragedy of historic proportions," but McGuirk said the vote must be respected.
"You can still passionately believe that the decision of the people is wrong, as I happen to do, and accept it," he said.
The referendum will remove the Eighth Amendment, which required Irish authorities to defend the lives of a woman and a fetus as equals under the law from the moment of conception. In practical terms, the amendment outlawed all abortions until 2014, when terminations in rare cases when a woman's life was at risk started being allowed.
Campaigners who have fought for more than three decades to overturn the amendment celebrated the referendum vote as a major breakthrough for largely Catholic Ireland.
"This is a monumental day for women in Ireland," Orla O'Connor, co-director of the Together for Yes group, said. "This is about women taking their rightful place in Irish society, finally."
The vote is a "rejection of an Ireland that treated women as second-class citizens," she said, adding: "This is about women's equality and this day brings massive change, monumental change for women in Ireland, and there is no going back."
The referendum will likely end the need for thousands of Irish women to travel abroad — mostly to neighboring Britain — for abortions they can't get at home.
The prime minister said the large vote favoring repeal will give his government a greater mandate when drafting abortion legislation that will be submitted for parliamentary approval in a matter of months.
In a conciliatory gesture to Irish voters with strong anti-abortion views, Varadkar said abortion and teenage pregnancy rates already are falling and that his government will take steps to assure there are fewer crisis pregnancies and better sex education in schools going forward.
The mood was jubilant at Dublin's Intercontinental hotel, where supporters of the Together For Yes group spent hours watching the vote tally come in from the country's 40 balloting districts.
Some supporters had tears of joy running down their cheeks, and many women hugged each other. Cheers erupted every time partial results were shown on two big screens transmitting the latest television news.
When the final count was announced at Dublin Castle, more than 1,000 people gathered outside sang, chanted and toasted each other with champagne.
An exit poll from Irish broadcaster RTE poll indicated that about 72 percent of women voted "yes" along with about 66 percent of men. The strongest backing came from younger voters; the exit poll said the only age group in which a majority voted "no" was voters age 65 or older.
The poll also suggested that supporters of more liberal abortion laws triumphed throughout the country, not just in the cosmopolitan capital, Dublin, where a strong youth vote had been anticipated.
Ireland's parliament will be charged with debating new abortion laws in the coming months. The government has proposed allowing abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with later terminations allowed in some cases.
Irish Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone said she is confident legislation can be approved by parliament and put in place before the end of the year.
"I feel very emotional," she said. "I'm especially grateful to the women of Ireland who came forward to provide their personal testimony about the hard times that they endured, the stress and the trauma that they experienced because of the Eighth Amendment."
The vote in the Republic of Ireland may increase pressure on Northern Ireland to follow suit.
Abortions approved by doctors are allowed in the rest of Britain until the 24th week of pregnancy, but not in Northern Ireland, where the procedure is limited to cases when a woman's life is at risk.
U.K. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable and other politicians said Saturday it is time for Northern Ireland to change as well.
"The position in Northern Ireland is now highly anomalous and I think, probably, action will now have to be taken," Cable said.