Opinion polls suggest the result is too close to call after weeks of bitter campaigning, with those backing liberalisation edging slightly ahead, but one in six people still undecided.
“I’m very hopeful, because I believe we have understood in Ireland that it (the ban) is a cruelty that must end now, we’ve had enough,” Ailbhe Smyth, the co-director of the Together for Yes pro-choice campaign, told AFP.
Meanwhile Geraldine Martin, a spokeswoman for the Love Both pro-life campaign, said the government had failed to help mothers with unwanted pregnancies.
“At no stage has the government held out its hand to these women and said, ‘How can I help you? How can I take the pressure off you so you don’t feel so driven towards abortion?” she told AFP.
Friday’s referendum will decide whether to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution, passed in 1983, which bans all abortions except where the mother’s life is at risk.
Since then around 170,000 Irish women have gone abroad for a termination, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said, as he called for voters to take a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to change the law.
The referendum, which comes just three years after Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage, has dominated public debate and thousands of Irish expatriates have flown home to cast their ballots.
– Choirs and angels -Campaigners pushing either “Yes” to the repeal of the ban or “No” mingled on Grafton Street, Dublin’s main shopping thoroughfare, chatting and debating with shoppers and people heading home from work.
Standing almost back to back, one held a “Yes” leaflet high, saying, “Your body, your vote, your choice,” while another said: “Please vote No — thousands of lives depend on it.”
A group of singers called Voices for Choice were doing a choir crawl through the city, singing adapted versions of pop songs in support of the Repeal campaign.
As the choir sang, one woman held a small sign reading “Vote No. Love them at every stage of life.”
A team of women dressed with white angel wings walked through in support of the campaign for change.
The polls are open from 7:00am (0600 GMT) until 10:00 pm (2100 GMT) on Friday, with full results not expected until Saturday evening.
– Voting on remote islands -Voting was already under way a day early on 12 remote islands in the Atlantic Ocean, to ensure the ballot boxes can be brought to count centres on the mainland in case of poor weather.
The four voters on Inishfree off the Donegal coast had two hours to get to the island’s only polling station.
The Irish government has proposed that if the ban is repealed, abortion will be allowed up to 12 weeks and between 12 and 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.
Pro-life campaigners have condemned this plan as “abortion on demand”.
“I’m confident that the Irish people will reject this extreme proposal, and force the government to come up with a better plan than abortion for healthy mothers with healthy babies,” Katie Ascough, 21, a Love Both campaign spokeswoman, told AFP.
But Sarah Monaghan, from the rival camp, said: “People in Ireland… are ready to face up to that reality and do something about it, and the power is now is in their hands.
“What we have done is begin to dismantle the shame and stigma that was around this issue for so many years.”
– No easy choice -“I don’t think it’s an easy choice at all,” said Dylan Mullarkey, 20, a psychology student from Sligo in western Ireland.
“I’m voting Yes for anyone who finds themselves in a difficult situation to have the choice of what they do with their own body. It’s a social issue that has to be addressed.”
Across the street, wearing a badge reading “Abortion stops a beating heart,” was Margaret Harper, 76, a retired nurse from Wexford in the southeast.
“I’m a Roman Catholic and I’ve always been against abortion,” she said.
“Life begins at conception. Every human being is sacred. I consider it horrific to take life.
“Hard cases make bad laws. The baby is always innocent.” DM