By Padraic Halpin and Graham Fahy
DUBLIN (Reuters) - The people of Ireland are set to liberalize some of the world's most restrictive abortion laws by a landslide, two exit polls from a referendum showed on Friday, as voters demanded change in what two decades ago was one of Europe's most socially conservative countries.
An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI exit poll suggested that voters in the once deeply Catholic nation had backed change by 68 percent to 32 percent. An RTE/Behaviour & Attitudes survey put the margin at 69 percent to 31 percent.
If confirmed, the outcome will be the latest 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.
"It's looking like we will make history tomorrow," Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who was in favour of change, said on Twitter.
Vote-counting begins at 0800 GMT on Saturday, with the first indication of results expected mid-morning.
Voters were asked if they wish to scrap a 1983 amendment to the constitution that 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 is in danger.
Photographs on Twitter showed campaigners hugging and in tears at the Together4yes umbrella group's headquarters shortly after the first exit poll was published.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan called it "another big step out of our dark past." Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, an early advocate for holding the referendum, said an "emotional, historic day" lay ahead.
Varadkar called the vote a once-in-a-generation chance and voters responded with national broadcaster RTE reporting that turnout could be one of the highest for a referendum, potentially topping the 61 percent who backed gay marriage by a large margin.
No social issue has 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.
Yet the Irish Times exit poll showed overwhelming majorities in all age groups under 65 voted for change, including almost nine in every 10 voters under the age of 24.
The RTE poll suggested the highest "Yes" vote was in Dublin, where 80 percent were in favor, but there was no sharp urban/rural divide as in previous referendums on the subject, with 63 percent of people living in areas with a population under 1,500 backing the proposals.
"So many women have travelled across to England to take care of their family and healthcare needs and I think it's a disgrace and it needs to change," said "Yes" voter Sophie O'Gara, 28, referring to women who travel to Britain for abortions.
The fiercely contested vote divided political parties, saw the once-mighty church take a back seat, and became a test case for how global internet giants deal with social media advertising in political campaigns.
Unlike in 1983, when religion was front and center and abortion was a taboo subject for most, the campaign was defined by women on both sides publicly describing their personal experiences of terminations.
"Yes" campaigners argued that with over 3,000 women traveling to Britain each year for terminations -- a right enshrined in a 1992 referendum -- and others ordering pills illegally online, abortion is already a reality in Ireland.
Although not on the ballot paper, the "No" camp sought to seize on government plans to allow abortions with no restriction up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy if the referendum is carried, calling it a step too far for most voters.
Some "Yes" politicians were already calling on the government to pass the legislation without delay following the publication of the exit polls.
The Irish government's push to liberalize the laws is in contrast to the United States, where abortion has long been legal, but President Donald Trump backs stripping federal funding from women's health care clinics that offer abortions.
HOME TO VOTE
Videos shared on social media showed scores of voters arriving home at Irish airports from abroad. Ireland does not allow expatriates to vote via post or in embassies but those away for less than 18 months remain on the electoral roll.
As with the gay marriage referendum, those using the #hometovote hashtag on Twitter appeared overwhelmingly to back change. Many posted photos of themselves wearing sweatshirts bearing the "Repeal" slogan.
"Women and girls should not be made into healthcare refugees when they are in a time of crisis," said Niamh Kelly, 27, who paid 800 euros and traveled 20 hours to return home from Hanoi where she works as an English teacher.
"This is a once in a lifetime generation chance to lift the culture of shame that surrounds this issue so it was really important to me to be part of that."
Graphic on abortion policies worldwide: https://tmsnrt.rs/2Lu7DM7
(Additional reporting by Emily Roe; Editing by William Maclean, Angus MacSwan and Grant McCool)