Republican Alabama governor mulling nation’s strictest abortion law

The U.S. Flag and Alabama State Flag fly over the Alabama Governor's Mansion as the state Senate votes on the strictest anti-abortion bill in the United States at the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. May 14, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

(Reuters) – Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on Wednesday was mulling whether to sign the United States’ strictest abortion law, part of a multistate effort to get the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider women’s constitutional right to abortion.

The state’s Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that would outlaw nearly all abortions, including in the cases of pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest, allowing exceptions only to protect the mother’s health.

The Republican governor is a strong opponent of abortion but has so far withheld comment on whether she would sign the bill.

If Ivey signs the bill, the law would take effect six months later. But it is certain to face legal challenge from abortion rights groups, which have vowed to sue.

Legislation to restrict abortion rights has been introduced this year in 16 states, four of whose governors have signed bills banning abortion if an embryonic heartbeat can be detected.

The Alabama bill goes further, banning abortions at any time. Those performing abortions would be committing a felony, punishable by 10 to 99 years in prison. A woman who receives an abortion would not be held criminally liable.

The Senate defeated a Democratic amendment that would have allowed legal abortions for women and girls impregnated by rape or incest.

Anti-abortion advocates know any laws they pass are certain to be challenged. Courts this year have blocked a restrictive Kentucky law and another in Iowa passed last year.

But supporters of the Alabama ban said the right to life of the fetus transcends other rights, an idea they would like tested at the Supreme Court.

The high court, now with a majority of conservative justices after Republican President Donald Trump appointed two, could possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision establishing a woman’s right to an abortion.

Just this year, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have outlawed abortion after a doctor can detect an embryonic heartbeat.

Opponents call the “heartbeat” legislation a virtual ban because embryonic cardiac activity can be detected as early as six weeks, before a woman may be aware she is pregnant.

The National Organization for Women denounced Alabama’s ban as unconstitutional.

Actress and activist Alyssa Milano has called for a sex strike under the social media hashtag #SexStrike in response to the campaigns against abortion rights, urging women to refuse sex with men “until we get bodily autonomy back.”

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. to expand abortion ‘gag rule,’ won’t fund certain groups: Pompeo

Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

The Trump administration on Tuesday expanded its anti-abortion policies, prohibiting U.S.-funded organizations from supporting other groups that support abortion and forbidding the use of U.S. tax dollars to lobby for or against abortion.

In 2017, Trump reinstated a policy known by critics as the “global gag rule,” which requires foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive U.S. family planning funds to certify they do not provide abortions or give abortion advice.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday the United States will expand the policy by cracking down on NGOs that fund other groups that support abortion.

The United States will also enforce the federal law forbidding the use of U.S. funding, including foreign assistance, to lobby for or against abortion, he added.

“We will refuse to provide assistance to foreign NGOs that give financial support to other foreign groups in the global abortion industry,” Pompeo told reporters.

He added that the United States will cut funding to the Organization of American States as a result of the expanded rule. “The institutions of OAS should be focused on addressing crises in Cuba, Nicaragua and in Venezuela, not advancing the pro-abortion cause,” he said.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Mississippi governor signs ‘heartbeat’ abortion ban

FILE PHOTO: Phil Bryant, governor of Mississippi, speaks during an election night party for Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S., November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

(Reuters) – Mississippi’s Republican governor signed one of America’s strictest abortion bills on Thursday banning women from obtaining an abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can often occur before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

Dubbed the ‘heartbeat bill,’ this is the second legislative attempt in less than a year aimed at restricting abortions in a state with a single abortion clinic.

In a tweet earlier this week, Governor Phil Bryant thanked the state’s legislature for “protecting the unborn” by passing the bill and sending it to him for his signature.

The Mississippi law joins a wave of similar Republican-backed measures recently introduced in Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia.

Conservative Republican proponents say these bills are intended to challenge Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark ruling that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.

U.S. states are jostling for a showdown on abortion rights in 2019, with all eyes on the conservative-dominated Supreme Court.

Just last November, a U.S. federal judge struck down a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks, ruling that it “unequivocally” violates women’s constitutional rights.

The new Mississippi bill prohibits the abortion of a fetus with a detectable heartbeat, before the point where a woman may be aware she is pregnant.

It also states that any physician who violates the restriction is subject to losing the license to practice medicine.

The law makes exceptions for women whose health is at extreme risk. It is a victory for anti-abortion groups, but abortion rights advocates have promised to pursue legal action to overturn it.

“This ban is one of the most restrictive abortion bans signed into law, and we will take Mississippi to court to make sure it never takes effect,” Hillary Schneller, staff attorney at the global abortion rights advocacy group Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

“This ban, just like the 15-week ban the Governor signed a year ago is cruel and clearly unconstitutional.”

A fetus that is viable outside the womb, usually at 24 weeks, has widely been considered the threshold in the United States to prohibit an abortion.

Last week, a federal judge blocked Kentucky’s fetal heartbeat abortion law. An Iowa judge overturned that state’s heartbeat law in January after declaring it violated the state’s constitution.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Nick Carey and Richard Chang)

Court allows Ohio law blocking Planned Parenthood funding

FILE PHOTO: A sign is pictured at the entrance to a Planned Parenthood building in New York August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

(Reuters) – A divided federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the constitutionality of an Ohio law to block state funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, in a victory for anti-abortion advocates.

By an 11-6 vote, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati rejected arguments by Planned Parenthood affiliates that the law signed by Republican Governor John Kasich in 2016 barring funding for entities that perform abortions violated their due process rights.

“The affiliates are correct that the Ohio law imposes a condition on the continued receipt of state funds,” Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for the majority. “But that condition does not violate the Constitution because the affiliates do not have a due process right to perform abortions.”

Tuesday’s decision overturned a lower court injunction against the law, which the appeals court had upheld last April 18.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)

Kennedy’s departure puts abortion, gay rights in play at high court

FILE PHOTO: Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy speaks during a swearing in ceremony for Judge Neil Gorsuch as an associate justice of the Supreme Court in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, announced on Wednesday, could put some of his signature rulings in jeopardy, including ones that expanded or preserved gay rights and abortion rights.

Kennedy is a conservative, but he joined the court’s four liberals to cast deciding votes on several key social issues, most notably on gay marriage.

His successor will be picked by President Donald Trump from a White House list of 25 names recommended by conservative legal activists, and the new justice is likely to take a less liberal tack than Kennedy did on at least some issues. If so, he or she will provide a fifth vote for the court’s conservatives rather than its liberals – and over time reshape the U.S. legal landscape.

“It’s extremely likely President Trump is going to appoint someone who is not going to follow Justice Kennedy’s lead in those cases and will go even further in undermining constitutional rights and degrading the rule of law,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal leaning Constitutional Accountability Center.

Without Kennedy, she said, the court would have overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case establishing a woman’s right to abortion. It would also have prevented gay people from marrying and ended university admissions programs that take race into account, she said.

New cases on gay rights and abortion could reach the high court in short order.

Legal battles are already developing over newly enacted laws restricting abortion, including one in Arkansas that effectively bans medication abortions. The Supreme Court opted not to intervene in a case challenging that law in May, saying it would wait for lower courts to rule, but the issue is likely to return to the court in coming years.

Anti-abortion activists celebrated Kennedy’s announcement.

“Justice Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court marks a pivotal moment for the fight to ensure every unborn child is welcomed and protected,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List.

She noted that Trump has previously pledged “to nominate only pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.”

Another live issue expected to come back to the court is whether people who run businesses can refuse service to gay couples because of religious objections to same-sex marriage.

In an opinion this year by Kennedy in a case involving a Colorado bakery, the court on a 7-2 vote ruled narrowly on the issue, but it punted on the larger question of whether to allow religious-based exemptions to anti-discrimination laws. That issue could be back before the justices as soon as the court’s next term, which starts in October, in a case involving a Christian florist

Kennedy cast decisive votes backing gay rights on four occasions, most notably in 2015 when the court legalized same-sex marriage.

Gay rights activists, while praising Kennedy’s votes, expressed alarm about his departure from the bench.

“The Supreme Court has done a lot to change the position of LGBT people in America, but there are big open questions the court may well weigh in on in the future, so there’s a lot at stake,” said James Esseks, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who works on gay rights cases.

Esseks said he is hopeful the new justice will embrace recent legal victories in gay rights battles and urged senators to press the nominee on the issue during the confirmation process after Trump announces his pick.

Liberal advocacy groups had long feared Kennedy’s retirement, and his announcement provoked instant anxiety. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a nationwide abortion provider, said it was bracing for Trump to appoint a justice to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“The significance of today’s news cannot be overstated: The right to access abortion in this country is on the line,” said Dawn Laguens, the group’s executive vice president.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Sue Horton)

Supreme court strikes down California law on anti-abortion centers

Anti-abortion activists (L-R) Terrisa Bukovinac, Megan Lott and Peter Hinman stand outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, U.S., June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a California law requiring clinics that counsel women against abortion to notify clients of the availability of abortions paid for by the state, ruling it violated the free speech rights of these Christian-based facilities.

The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, and while the broader issue of abortion rights was not at issue in the case, the 5-4 ruling represented a significant victory for abortion opponents who operate these kinds of clinics – called crisis pregnancy centers – around the country.

The court’s five conservative justices were in the majority in the ruling authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, with the four liberals dissenting.

Crisis pregnancy centers have said they offer legitimate health services but that it is their mission to steer women with unplanned pregnancies away from abortion.

There are roughly 2,700 crisis pregnancy centers in the United States, including around 200 in California, according to abortion rights advocates, vastly outnumbering abortion clinics. California officials said some of the centers mislead women by presenting themselves as full-service reproductive healthcare facilities, going so far as to resemble medical clinics, down to lab coats worn by staff.

California’s Reproductive FACT Act, passed by a Democratic-led legislature and signed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown in 2015, required centers licensed by the state as family planning facilities to post or distribute notices that the state has programs offering free or low-cost birth control, prenatal care and abortion services. The law also mandated unlicensed centers that may have no medical provider on staff to disclose that fact.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court poised to rule on Trump travel ban, California law on anti abortion clinic regulations

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court is seen after the court revived Ohio's contentious policy of purging infrequent voters from its registration rolls, overturning a lower court ruling that Ohio's policy violated the National Voter Registration Act, in Washington, U.S., June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Erin Schaff/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court, winding down its nine-month term, will issue rulings this week in its few remaining cases including a major one on the legality of President Donald Trump’s ban on people from five Muslim-majority nations entering the country.

The nine justices are due to decide other politically sensitive cases on whether non-union workers have to pay fees to unions representing certain public-sector workers such as police and teachers, and the legality of California regulations on clinics that steer women with unplanned pregnancies away from abortion.

The justices began their term in October and, as is their usual practice, aim to make all their rulings by the end of June, with more due on Monday. Six cases remain to be decided.

The travel ban case was argued on April 25, with the court’s conservative majority signaling support for Trump’s policy in a significant test of presidential powers.

Trump has said the ban is needed to protect the United States from attacks by Islamic militants. Conservative justices indicated an unwillingness to second-guess Trump on his national security rationale.

Lower courts had blocked the travel ban, the third version of a policy Trump first pursued a week after taking office last year. But the high court on Dec. 4 allowed it to go fully into effect while the legal challenge continued.

The challengers, led by the state of Hawaii, have argued the policy was motivated by Trump’s enmity toward Muslims. Lower courts have decided the ban violated federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on the government favoring one religion over another.

The current ban, announced in September, prohibits entry into the United States by most people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

In a significant case for organized labor, the court’s conservatives indicated opposition during arguments on Feb. 26 to so-called agency fees that some states require non-members to pay to public-sector unions.

Workers who decide not to join unions representing certain state and local employees must pay the fees in two dozen states in lieu of union dues to help cover the cost of non-political activities such as collective bargaining. The fees provide millions of dollars annually to these unions.

The justices seemed skeptical during March 20 arguments toward California’s law requiring Christian-based anti-abortion centers, known as crisis pregnancy centers, to post notices about the availability of state-subsidized abortions and birth control. The justices indicated that they would strike down at least part of the regulations.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)

U.S. top court rejects challenge to strict Arkansas abortion law

Visitors to the Supreme Court are pictured in the rain in Washington, October 7, 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court will this week step into the politically charged debate over campaign finance for the first time since its controversial ruling three years ago paved the way for corporations and unions to spend more on political candidates and causes. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW) - GM1E9A71U4B01

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a setback to abortion rights advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday paved the way for Republican-backed restrictions on medication-induced abortions to take effect in Arkansas that could lead to the shuttering of two of the state’s three abortion clinics.

The nine justices, with no noted dissents, declined to hear an appeal by abortion provider Planned Parenthood of a lower court ruling that had revived the state law, which sets regulations regarding the RU-486 “abortion pill,” after it was earlier struck down by a federal judge. The law had remained blocked pending the outcome of the appeal to the Supreme Court.

The high court’s action may not be the final word on the matter. Planned Parenthood can still ask a judge to reimpose the injunction blocking the law.

The Supreme Court in 1973 legalized abortion nationwide, but many Republican-governed states have passed laws seeking to impose a variety of restrictions, some so demanding that they may shut down abortion clinics and make the procedure far more difficult to obtain.

The justices, in a 2016 ruling, struck down a restrictive Republican-backed Texas law that had targeted abortion clinics and doctors in a decision that was seen as reaffirming and fortifying legal protections for abortion rights. Planned Parenthood had claimed the appeals court ruling in the Arkansas case had disregarded the precedent set in the Texas case.

The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals restored the law last year, reversing a 2016 ruling by a district court judge that had prevented it from going into effect.

Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which runs two of the three clinics that provide abortions in Arkansas, sued the state in 2015, saying the law would deprive many Arkansas women of their legal right to an abortion.

The law involves the RU-486 “abortion pill,” also called mifepristone (brand name Mifeprex) and misoprostol (brand name Cytotec). It requires any doctor dispensing the drug to sign a contract with another doctor who would agree to handle any medical complications from it, an unusual and difficult-to-achieve arrangement. The contracted doctor also must have admitting privileges at a hospital designated to handle emergencies.

Arkansas said the law was aimed at protecting women against the “dangerous and potentially dangerous” off-label use of the abortion pills.

RU-486 was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2000 subject to the instructions stated on the label. The “off-label” use prohibited by Arkansas allowed for less physician oversight when RU-486 is used. Planned Parenthood, which offers only medication-induced abortions at its two facilities in Arkansas, said the effect of the law would be to ban such abortions in the state.

The only other abortion clinic in the state, Little Rock Family Planning Services in the state capital, offers both surgical and medication abortions. The district court judge had found that women in Fayetteville, for example, would then have to make two 380-mile (610-km) round trips to get an abortion at what would be the state’s last remaining abortion clinic.

The state’s lawyers said the Arkansas law differs from the Texas law as it does not require the doctors who provide abortions to have hospital admitting privileges. They also said the abortion providers failed to provide evidence that a significant number of women would be adversely affected.

In 2013, the Supreme Court left intact an Oklahoma court ruling that struck down a state law that would have effectively banned RU-486.

In the Supreme Court’s current term, which runs through the end of June, the justices are weighing another abortion-related case in which operators of Christian-affiliated “crisis pregnancy centers” that steer women with unplanned pregnancies away from abortion are challenging a California law that requires them to post notices telling women about the availability of state-subsidized abortions.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Ireland quietly comes to terms with dramatic change after abortion vote

Messages are left at a memorial to Savita Halappanava a day after an Abortion Referendum to liberalise abortion laws was passed by popular vote, in Dublin, Ireland May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

By Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Irish people paid homage on Sunday to an Indian immigrant woman whose death inspired a historic vote to repeal Ireland’s strict abortion laws while the Catholic Church rued the outcome saying it showed indifference to its teachings.

In a referendum on Friday, the once deeply Catholic nation voted to scrap a prohibition on abortion by a margin of two-to-one, a landslide victory that astonished campaigners as citizens of every age and background demanded the change they had spent decades fighting for.

The vote overturns a law which, for decades, has forced over 3,000 women to travel to Britain each year for terminations that they could not legally have in their own country. “Yes” campaigners had argued that with pills now being bought illegally online abortion was already a reality in Ireland.

Hundreds of people on Sunday continued to leave flowers and candles at a large mural in Dublin of Savita Halappanaar, the 31-year-old Indian whose death in 2012 from a septic miscarriage after being refused a termination spurred lawmakers into action.

Katy Gaffney, a 24-year-old baker who traveled home to Dublin from Berlin to vote, stood silently in front of the makeshift memorial crying.

Messages are left at a memorial to Savita Halappanava a day after an Abortion Referendum to liberalise abortion laws was passed by popular vote, in Dublin, Ireland May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Messages are left at a memorial to Savita Halappanava a day after an Abortion Referendum to liberalise abortion laws was passed by popular vote, in Dublin, Ireland May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

“I am relieved but devastated that it had to come to this,” she said.

Others, many with tears in their eyes, pinned messages to the wall. One read: “I’m so sorry this happened to you before the country woke up. My vote was for you.” Another: “I’m sorry we let you down. It won’t be in vain.”

“It’s not a high. It’s more of a relief,” said Lynda Cosgrave, a 35-year-old legal associate, wearing the black sweatshirt with ‘Repeal’ in white that become the symbol of the youthful “Yes” campaign.

“I thought when I came in last night it would be jubilant, but it was a bit down. It’s a bit sad. I don’t think we ever thought it would actually happen.”

The campaign was defined by women publicly sharing their painful experiences of going abroad for procedures, a key reason why all but one of Ireland’s 40 constituencies voted “Yes”.

The government of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who campaigned to repeal the laws, will begin drafting legislation in the coming week to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy by the end of the year.

Many lawmakers who campaigned for a “No” vote said they would not try to block the bill.

NEW MILESTONE

The outcome was a new milestone on a path of change for the country of 4.8 million which only legalized divorce by a tiny majority in 1995 before becoming the first in the world to adopt gay marriage by popular vote three years ago.

With the vote making newspaper frontpages across the world, French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter that “Ireland has once again made history.” He called the vote an essential symbol for women’s freedom.

In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May faces a showdown with ministers and lawmakers in her Conservative party after refusing to back reform of highly restrictive abortion laws in the British province of Northern Ireland which has a 500 km (312 mile) land border with Ireland.

Ireland’s push to liberalize its laws is in contrast to another traditionally Catholic European country, Poland, where the ruling conservative party and still powerful church are seeking to ban most abortions.

In Ireland though, the once all-powerful Catholic Church, which has seen its public influence collapse since the 1980s after a string of child sex abuse scandals, took a back seat throughout the referendum campaign.

In churches across the country on Sunday there was only regret at the outcome.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin told parishioners that the church had to “renew its commitment to support life.”

“Many will see the results of Friday’s referendum as an indication that the Catholic Church in Ireland is regarded today by many with indifference and as having a marginal role in the formation of Irish culture,” Martin said in a homily published by the Archdiocese of Dublin.

Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick called the result “deeply regrettable and chilling for those of us who voted ‘No’.” He asked those attending mass to pray for healing in Irish society.

Calling on colleagues to move quickly on legislation, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone reminded lawmakers that Irish women would still have to travel across the water to Britain for terminations until they acted.

“Women are leaving the country today,” she told national broadcaster RTE. “We have to be aware of that and have that sense of urgency in order to legislate as soon as possible.”

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Ireland ends abortion ban as ‘quiet revolution’ transforms country

Observers watch as votes are tallied folowing yesterday's referendum on liberalizing abortion law, in Dublin, Ireland, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland’s prime minister on Saturday hailed the culmination of “a quiet revolution” in what was once one of Europe’s most socially conservative countries after a landslide referendum vote to liberalize highly restrictive laws on abortion.

Voters in the once deeply Catholic nation backed the change by two-to-one, a far higher margin than any opinion poll in the run up to the vote had predicted, and allows the government to bring in legislation by the end of the year.

“It’s incredible. For all the years and years and years we’ve been trying to look after women and not been able to look after women, this means everything,” said Mary Higgins, obstetrician and Together For Yes campaigner.

For decades, the law forced over 3,000 women to travel to Britain each year for terminations and “Yes” campaigners argued that with others now ordering pills illegally online, abortion was already a reality in Ireland.

The campaign was defined by women publicly sharing their painful experiences of leaving the country for procedures, a key reason why all but one of Ireland’s 40 constituencies voted “Yes”.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who campaigned to repeal the laws, had called the vote a once-in-a-generation chance and voters responded by turning out in droves. A turnout of 64 percent was one of the highest for a referendum.

“Today is an historic day for Ireland. A quiet revolution has taken place,” Varadkar, who became Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister last year, said in a speech after the vote.

“Everyone deserves a second chance. This is Ireland’s second chance to treat everyone equally and with compassion and respect. We have voted to look reality in the eye and we did not blink.”

The outcome is a new milestone on a path of change for a country which only legalized divorce by a razor thin majority in 1995 before becoming the first in the world to adopt gay marriage by popular vote three years ago.

The once-mighty Catholic Church took a back seat throughout the campaign.

ASTONISHING MARGIN

Anti-abortion activists conceded defeat early on Saturday as their opponents expressed astonishment at the scale of their victory. Lawmakers who campaigned for a “No” vote said they would not seek to block the government’s plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

“What Irish voters did yesterday is a tragedy of historic proportions,” the Save The 8th group said. “However, a wrong does not become a right simply because a majority support it.”

Voters were asked to scrap the constitutional amendment, which gives an unborn child and its mother equal rights to life. The consequent prohibition on abortion was partly lifted in 2013 for cases where the mother’s life was in danger.

The country’s largest newspaper, the Irish Independent, described the result as “a massive moment in Ireland’s social history”.

Activists react at the count centre as votes are tallied folowing yesterday's referendum on liberalizing abortion law, in Dublin, Ireland, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Activists react at the count centre as votes are tallied folowing yesterday’s referendum on liberalizing abortion law, in Dublin, Ireland, May 26, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Campaigners for change, wearing “Repeal” jumpers and “Yes” badges, gathered at count centers, many in tears and hugging each other. Others sang songs in the sunshine outside the main Dublin results center as they awaited the official result.

The large crowd cheered Varadkar as he took to the stage to thank them for “trusting women and respecting their choices”.

Reform in Ireland also raised the prospect that women in Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal, may start traveling south of the border.

“The outcome of the referendum is an extremely worrying development for the protection of the unborn child in Northern Ireland,” said Jim Wells, a member of Northern Ireland’s socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party.

MIDDLE GROUND

No social issue had divided Ireland’s 4.8 million people as sharply as abortion, which was pushed up the political agenda by the death in 2012 of a 31-year-old Indian immigrant from a septic miscarriage after she was refused a termination.

Campaigners left flowers and candles at a large mural of the woman, Savita Halappanavar, in central Dublin. Her parents in India were quoted by the Irish Times newspaper as thanking their “brothers and sisters” in Ireland and requesting the new law be called “Savita’s law”.

Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said he believed a middle ground of around 40 percent of voters had decided en masse to allow women and doctors rather than lawmakers and lawyers to decide whether a termination was justified.

“For him, it’s a different Ireland that we’re moving onto,” said Colm O’Riain, a 44-year-old teacher referring to his son Ruarai, born 14 weeks premature in November who was in his arms.

“It’s an Ireland that is more tolerant, more inclusive and where he can be whatever he wants without fear of recrimination.”

(Additional reporting by Graham Fahy and Emily Roe in Dublin; Amanda Ferguson in Belfast and Michael Holden in London; Editing by Alison Williams and Richard Balmforth)