LONDON — Voters across Ireland were casting ballots Friday in a historic referendum on whether to liberalize the country's strict abortion laws.
They were deciding whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which enshrines the equal right to life of the mother and fetus.
If voters back repealing it, new abortion laws will then be discussed in parliament. The government proposes the law be changed to allow unrestricted access to abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Later abortions would also be allowed in special circumstances.
The traditionally Catholic country has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the European Union, with Malta — where abortion is banned under all circumstances— the only member of the 28-country bloc with tighter legislation.
Abortion is currently only permitted in Ireland if a woman's life is in danger which includes the risk of suicide. It is not permitted in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET) and votes can be cast until 10 p.m. Friday (5 p.m. ET).
More than 3.2 million people are registered to vote in the referendum.
Ireland is one of the few E.U. countries that does not allow those abroad to vote by mail or at embassies, so many expatriates traveled to cast their ballots and shared their journeys on social media under the hashtag #hometovote.
Thousands of dollars were raised on Facebook overnight for people who realized they could make it back to Ireland to vote but could not afford the last-minute flights.
Members of the Abroad for Yes, an abortion-rights group, wired donations to people no longer living in Ireland.
Becky Breakey, who lives in the Hungarian city of Budapest, was able to travel after she posted that it would cost her 555 euros ($644) to get back home. Aisling Cotter said she reached her target to get back from London after just eight minutes, while others were given enough money to fly from as far away as Montreal.
The outcome of the referendum is expected to be close following an emotive and often acrimonious campaign.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who is in favour of change, has warned that the referendum is a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity.
A poll published by the Irish Times/IPSOS MRBI on May 17 found that 44 percent of respondents intended to vote "yes" to repealing the Eighth Amendment, compared to 32 percent who said they would vote "no." However, support for the anti-abortion rights campaign has grown in recent weeks and 24 percent of respondents said they remained undecided or were not planning to vote.
Official results are not expected until Saturday afternoon or evening at the earliest.