DUBLIN, Ireland — With two governments, a recent European treaty vote and a suffering economic climate, pro-life leaders from the island of Ireland face complex challenges. But the movement has resilient, savvy leaders who are fully aware of the land’s pro-life heritage and the ongoing battle for life.
Workers in the movement address concerns on the street, lobby legislators, and connect with the masses through new media. Often they have looked to pro-life leaders in the United States for strategy and inspiration. Pro-lifers worldwide look to Ireland with hope, as the country has held legalized abortion at bay.
However, the Oct. 2 vote in the Republic of Ireland ratifying the Treaty of Lisbon has many pro-life leaders concerned. The treaty, which the Irish turned down in June 2008, is an initiative to revamp structures for the European Union. All 27 member states of the EU have to ratify it for it to take effect. Ireland was No. 26, and now the Czech Republic is debating its ratification.
Despite a hard-fought campaign against the treaty, the Irish voted 67% in favor of it. Opponents have been alarmed at the idea of losing sovereignty. Many Irish pro-lifers were worried that the nation’s constitutional defense of an unborn child’s right to life could be overridden by a European court.
Niamh Ui Bhriain, an Irish pro-life activist who was part of a Lisbon Treaty opposition group called Coir, spoke of the amount of information given to the Irish people encouraging them to vote Yes.
“Since January of this year, we have just had a stream of propaganda on the media, from the European Commission, of all the fiscal parties, and it has been ad nauseam,” she said.
She believed the message from the Yes camp was: “If we don’t vote Yes, we’ll lose jobs and we’ll never recover economically, and we’ll be thrown out of the European Union.” She believes that the fact that the Irish economy has worsened since last year was a major factor in the vote.
The Irish bishops stated that an Irish Catholic could vote Yes or No in clear conscience.
“It was not a treaty involving faith and morals; it was a treaty to reform the administrative structure of the European Union,” said Martin Long, director of communications for the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
In their Sept. 21 statement on the matter, the bishops declared, in part, “It remains our responsibility, as citizens of Ireland and as citizens of the European Union, to promote vigorously the ‘gospel of life’ as described by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae.”
They encouraged all Christians to become educated on the treaty and vote for the common good.
History of Abortion Laws
Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, have a precedent for legal protection of the unborn from the 1861 British law Offences Against the Person Act, which forbade abortion.
In 1983, the Eighth Amendment was added to the Irish Republic’s constitution to acknowledge “the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” Concerned citizens had seen the passing of Roe v. Wade in the United States and desired to ensure that their unborn were protected.
However, in 1992 the constitution was further amended on this matter after the “X” case. This involved a 14-year-old Irish girl who sought an abortion in England after being raped and reported suicidal thoughts. Initially, a High Court injunction forbade her from having the abortion, citing the Eighth Amendment. But then the Irish Supreme Court overturned the directive.
Ultimately, the girl had a miscarriage, but the case led to a referendum where voters were given three amendments to decide on.
In response to this, Ui Bhriain and five others started a pro-life organization called “Youth Defence” to rally the Irish people against a possible and hasty allowance of abortion in demand, due to the X case. Youth Defence staged rallies of 10,000-12,000 people.
But two of the three amendments passed that changed the “right to life” amendment. The 13th amendment “would not limit freedom to travel between Ireland and another state,” and the 14th “would not limit freedom to obtain or make available information relating to services lawfully available in another state.”
However, voters turned down the 12th amendment which would allow for abortion if it was necessary to save the life of the mother, except for suicide. However, the passing of the 14th amendment paved the way for referrals in Ireland for abortions outside of the country. Ui Bhriain stated that leading up to the vote the Irish government “strenuously denied” this amendment would allow for referrals.
Raised in a large family that was aware and concerned about social issues, Ui Bhriain had watched Joseph Scheidler’s efforts in the United States after the passing of Roe vs. Wade. A veteran pro-life activist, Scheidler employed strategies of protests at abortion clinics.
“The whole concept was amazing to us, that someone would have to do this, that you would be obliged in a country to make those interventions, to stick up for mothers and babies in that way because abortion was a reality that happened every day in the States,” said Ui Bhriain, a wife and mother of four.
Labeled “extreme” or “militant” by critics, Youth Defence uses graphic images of abortion in their street outreach campaigns and in their yearly “road show.” This extended street campaign makes stops across towns and cities throughout Ireland each summer. They also distribute glossy informative brochures and have had an engaging, colorful and regularly updated website for years. In addition, the group and its spin-offs have launched highly organized campaigns to bring awareness of life issues to the forefront of Irish society.
In Northern Ireland, abortion with the sole intent to kill an unborn child is illegal. The Abortion Act of 1967, which legalized abortion in the United Kingdom, has not been extended to Northern Ireland. However, “referral clinics” arrange abortions in England for women in Northern Ireland
Bernadette Smyth founded the organization Precious Life in 1997. A Catholic, Smyth attended a Divine Mercy conference in Dublin and heard a riveting talk by Pat Mahoney, an American Reformed Presbyterian minister and activist. He stressed the importance of keeping abortion out of Ireland.
Smyth looked over brochures from the conference back home in Ballymena, Northern Ireland. “The first time I came face-to-face with the horror of an abortion (was) through the images of aborted babies and the reality of how abortion affected women,” she said.
She said she felt challenged by the question “What was I to do to defend the least of the little ones?” and took it to prayer.
Smyth, a wife and mother of four, and her supporters have made Precious Life a serious pro-life force in Northern Ireland. Smyth and her helpers stand outside referral clinics to give women information about abortion and their health. She believes that nine out of 10 pregnant women in Northern Ireland considering abortion would choose life if given the right information and opportunity.
Smyth also lobbies members of various political parties — both Catholic and Protestant — in the Northern Ireland Assembly and employs street outreach techniques similar to Youth Defence.
Ui Bhriain believes that grassroots campaigns are vital in keeping public opinion on the side of life. The group she helped found is planning a conference called “Viva La Vida” to be held later this month. Featured speakers include Americans Gianna Jessen, an abortion survivor, and Lila Rose, a University of California, Los Angeles, student and pro-life activist who has highlighted practices of Planned Parenthood by posing as a pregnant teenager.
Back in Ballymena, Smyth believes that Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are strongly linked in regards to protecting the unborn. Indeed, shoppers from the republic can cross the border to save money on groceries in Northern Ireland, a change from the military security of the Troubles. If abortion on demand were legalized in either part of the island, it would mean lives lost on the other. The current threat in the north is the introduction of abortion guidelines issued by a British health department. Smyth believes this is a backdoor attempt to offer abortion and a way to desensitize people. Precious Life is collecting signatures for a petition that will be given to the Northern Ireland government.
“We have a Christian heritage here, and we continue to uphold that,” Smyth said. “We have saints and scholars who went before us, who defended the Christian faith, the Catholic faith, and we certainly are not about to sit back and allow the legalized slaughter of our children to be unleashed here in Ireland; and we’ll continue to pray that the scourge of abortion does not come to us, this beautiful, our beautiful Irish island.”
Justin Bell writes from