May 25 (UPI) -- Polling stations in Ireland saw high turnout Friday for a historic referendum to decide if an amendment barring abortion should be repealed in favor of legalization.
More than 3.2 million people are eligible to vote in Friday's referendum and officials said early turnout was greater than usual. It reached as high as 40 percent in some areas like Dublin, officials said.
Some experts say a high turnout, especially in urban areas, is likely to favor a "yes" vote for the referendum.
If voters favor legalizing abortion, legislation could follow to legalize abortions as late as 12 weeks into a pregnancy. If a woman's health is threatened or in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, abortions up to the 23rd week would be legal.
Irish law says abortions can only be performed in cases where the mother's life is in danger, a provision added in 2013. The procedure is banned, though, even in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormality. Anyone who seeks or performs an abortion under the 1983 law can be sent to prison for up to 14 years.
Irish Prime Minister Prime Minister Leo Varadkar urged voters Friday to vote for the repeal and remove the country's "legacy of shame."
"If we don't remove the Amendment from the constitution our doctors and lawmakers can't do anything for women," he said. "They can't do anything for women who have been raped, who are children themselves or who have been given the heartbreaking news of fatal fetal abnormality,"
The referendum vote is expected to be a close contest in the largely Catholic nation.
Opponents have come out against legalizing abortion, with some pressing a vote "NO" campaign across Ireland.
"Today is an international missing children's day. In the U.K., 8 million children have gone missing since the abortion law was introduced. I hope Ireland will not make the same mistake today," John McGuirk, a prominent Irish abortion rights opponent, said.
"Abortion does one thing, and one thing only -- it kills a baby," the Save the 8th campaign said.
Each year, it's estimated 3,500 Irish women travel abroad, mostly to Britain, to terminate pregnancies -- and about 2,000 more illegally obtain abortion pills or administer the procedure themselves.
"If the referendum doesn't pass these women will continue to have to travel abroad in their thousands," Varadkar added.
The issue has been widely debated in Ireland and led Google to ban all advertising related to the referendum. Facebook similarly blocked all foreign referendum advertising.
The Referendum Commission tweeted a simple message about Friday's vote: "The debate is over and now everyone should make sure their voice is heard by voting."
Some voters encountered trouble Friday attempting to return to Ireland to cast a ballot.
Some on a Ryanair flight from London had to board another plane after their flight was hit by another aircraft while awaiting takeoff. No one was injured.