By GREGORY KATZ and RENATA BRITO
DUBLIN (AP) - It's decision time in Ireland as citizens tackle one of the traditionally Roman Catholic country's most divisive issues - whether to repeal a constitutional amendment that imposes a strict abortion ban.
Under sunny skies, voters throughout Ireland cast votes Friday in a bitterly contested referendum that may alter the country's constitution and clear the way for the introduction of more lenient abortion laws.
The referendum will decide whether the eighth amendment of the constitution is repealed or stays in place. The country's leaders say it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to liberalize abortion rules.
The amendment requires authorities to equally protect the right to life of a mother and that of a fetus, from the moment of conception. Abortion in largely Catholic Ireland is currently illegal except in cases when the woman's life is in danger, and several thousand Irish women travel each year to get abortions in neighboring Britain.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, a medical doctor, voted in favor of repeal Friday morning. He said he was "quietly confident" there will be a high turnout, and that the sunny weather may help the "yes" forces in favor of repeal by bringing more people out to vote.
"Hope it will be a 'yes' vote," he said after casting his ballot at Laurel Lodge in Castleknock.
Results are not expected until Saturday afternoon or evening. Voting has already taken place on islands so that paper ballots can be taken to the mainland and counted in time.
"Yes" campaigners handed out stickers at several major pedestrian crossroads Friday morning, and many people voted on their way to work and sported "I voted" buttons.
The campaigners didn't sway Vera Rooney, who voted in favor of keeping the ban in place.
"It is a hard decision but I just feel I don't have the right to take life. I think life is sacred and for that reason I had to vote no," said Rooney, who voted early Friday at the North Grand Church polling station in Dublin.
Outside the North Grand Church polling station in Dublin, "Trust Women" was scrawled on the pavement by a "yes" supporter. Nearby, an opponent wrote: "Mama, save me, I love you."
Theresa Sweeney was one of the first people to vote there. She supports repeal.
"I'm not usually an early riser but I couldn't wait to get down here to vote," she said. "I feel like I've waited all of my adult life to have a say on this."
Letters to the editor published Friday in the Irish Independent newspaper contained emotional arguments urging voters to reject the repeal movement.
"If we vote 'yes', every unborn, wanted and unwanted, will have zero rights," wrote Frances Kelleher, from Killarney. "I do not believe the smart people of Ireland want this unrestricted, abortion-on-demand bill. I will be voting no."
If citizens vote in favor of repeal, new abortion laws will then be discussed in parliament. The government proposes that terminations be allowed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Later abortions would be allowed in special cases.
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