American pro-lifers arrive to defend `the last frontier'
Today, 80 members of the Christian Defence Coalition, a hardline American pro-life organsiation, will attend the Youth Defence gathering in the RDS. Their mission: to thwart the `diabolical plans' of what they describe as the `bloodthirsty pro-aborts' to introduce abortion to Ireland. Justine McCarthy reports
`Ireland is the only nation in the western world where abortion remains illegal. And Planned Parenthood can't stand it. They're also enraged that Ireland has the highest birthrate in Europe.
`They desperately want to bring the culture of death to Ireland and make that beautiful land a part of their worldwide ``killing fields''.'
Thus warned an advertisement published last month in the American Catholic paper The Wanderer. In an appeal for more than $70,000 to fly 100 young anti-abortion activists to Dublin for this weekend's Youth Defence gathering at the RDS, the advertisement, placed by the Christian Defence Coalition, claimed that ``50,000 Irish babies will be massacred'' within five years if abortion is legalised here.
It also alleged that Planned Parenthood, a similar organisation in America to the Irish Family Planning Association (both are members of the International Planned Parenthood Federation), was pouring millions of dollars into Ireland ``to fund law suits, influence elections and propagandise the people into supporting abortion''.
Warning that ``the pro-aborts are more confident than ever'' about the Irish situation, the advertisement bizarrely added: ``In recent years they've managed to legalise euthanasia, suicide and abortion referral. Abortion on demand is next on their list.''
Last Wednesday, almost 80 young Americans flew into Dublin on a seven-day mission to prevent the ``bloodthirsty pro-aborts' diabolical plans for Ireland''. The cost of the influx from the US to the second annual International Pro-Life Activists' Conference amounted to $588 for the air ticket, plus $160 in expenses for each delegate.
On Thursday morning, they boarded the Enterprise train to Belfast, where they linked up with members of the Ballymena-based pro-life organisation Precious Life for a meeting of 200 people at the Hilton Hotel.
Leading the American group that arrived here on Wednesday is the executive director of the Christian Defence Coalition, Pat Mahoney, a Presbyterian evangelist who also attended the first Youth Defence conference in Dublin on June 20 last year.
That conference coincided with a picket placed on the Irish Family Planning Association's clinic in Cathal Brugha Street. He was back on March 6 this year for a planned memorial service dedicated to `Baby X', a macabre revisitation of the landmark X Case when the 14-year-old rape victim suffered a miscarriage after the Supreme Court provided for an abortion in her circumstances.
A former anti-Vietnam activist, Pat Mahoney was to the fore in the invasion of the IFPA clinic in Dublin at the time of the `Baby X' commemoration.
Afterwards, Mr Justice O'Donovan threatened to jail Youth Defence members ``as quickly as I can'' if there were further breaches of a court order prohibiting them from picketing the clinic.
In a personal appeal featured in The Wanderer advertisement in August, Pat Mahoney wrote: ``For many years I've been overwhelmed and humbled by the passion, commitment and success of Youth Defence. They have worked day and night to prevent the legalisation of abortion in Ireland, something that seemed almost inevitable just a few short years ago ... Many of Youth Defence's brave activists have faced police brutality even worse than what we've seen here in the US ... In a private audience, Pope John Paul II told Youth Defence leaders John Heaney and Niamh Nic Mhathuna, `You must continue in your apostolate and be courageous.' The Pope is counting on us. So are Ireland's unborn.''
Asking for individual donations ranging from $7,480 to ``a blessed widow's mite offering'', he added: ``God will surely reward that kind of sacrifice.''
According to Frances Kissling, president of the liberal, Washington-based lobby group Catholics For a Free Choice, the Church is divided at its highest echelons over the tactics employed by the American pro-life movement.
``For example, the Pope met with Randall Terry, the leader of Operation Rescue (the most controversial of America's anti-abortion organisations) and he told him he was doing good and important work,'' says Kissling. ``These people are being encouraged by the Pope, but the Catholic bishops in the United States don't support them.''
Seven people have been killed in America in abortion-related violence since 1993. Most recently, a doctor was shot in his kitchen while his family were in the house. Last year alone in America there were two murders, one attempted murder, four cases of arson, one bombing and 19 acid attacks.
While there is no evidence - in fact, no suggestion - that any Irish pro-life organisation has adopted the violent tactics employed in America, there have been extremist developments on this side of the Atlantic.
In June 1995, two elaborate hoax bombs were delivered to the Well Woman Centre in Leeson Street and the Irish College of General Practitioners in Fenian Street. Nobody ever admitted responsibility for them. More recently, the service provided by the Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Association was permanently shut down following an arson attack there last July.
This weekend's conference at the RDS fills the lacuna between the publication of the Government's green paper on abortion and next month's deadline for the whittling down of its seven stated options. For Youth Defence, these are optimum conditions for planning its campaign in readiness for the battle ahead. Thousands of activists are expected to converge on leafy Ballsbridge from 15 countries including Italy, Germany, Spain, Britain and France - ``to send a message to the pro-aborts and the Irish Government that the worldwide pro-life movement stands with Youth Defence, determined to keep Ireland abortion free forever. According to a Youth Defence spokesman, the conference will concentrate on tactics in advance of an expected referendum.
The timing gives greater significance to the attendance at the conference by the eminence grise of America's anti-abortion movement, the septugenarian Roman Catholic Joe Scheidler, head of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action Group. The tall, flamboyant campaigner wrote the supreme text of pro-life doctrine in a book entitled Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion. In it, he advised activists not to use the word ``foetus'' when speaking to the media. ``Use `baby' or `unborn child' ... You don't have to surrender to their vocabulary ... They will start using your terms is you use them.''
Joe Scheidler travelled to Ireland separately from the 80 American activists this week, but by the time he caught up with them in Dublin, he had already caused consternation in a country bracing itself for yet another distressing debate on abortion. By likening pro-choice campaigners to Hitler, he flew in the face of appeals for a calm and reasoned debate this time round.
But calm tends not to be Scheidler's style. He has famously described convicted clinic bombers and personnel kidnappers as ``political prisoners''. Commenting on the destruction of American abortion clinics, he once said: ``What we've seen is some damaged real estate ... it's like bombing Dachau and getting away without hurting anyone.''
Scheidler is a longtime friend of Niamh Nic Mhathuna's parents. It was during a stay at the family home in Churchtown during the 1983 abortion referendum that the Youth Defence founder became passionate about the cause when, as a 14-year-old girl, she happened to see graphic literature the American visitor was showing her parents.
He has been a regular visitor to Ireland in the last two decades. Always willing to condemn violence, he was, however, found guilty in 1988, along with two other prominent anti-abortion leaders, of conspiring to use violence and threats to terrorise staff and patients at abortion clinics.
``Ireland is the crown jewel in the Pope's cap,'' says Frances Kissling, ``and these people see it as the last bastion. You've had a relatively peaceful debate about abortion in Ireland, and the last thing you need now is a pair of American bullies coming over and changing all that.''