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‘Roe v Wade will turn the tide here’: US ruling gives hope to Irish anti-abortion activists

The overturning of the 1973 judgment in the US has galvanised both sides in an acrimonious debate. Anti-abortion campaigners here now believe repeal of the Eighth Amendment is reversible

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Celebration: Anti-abortion activists outside the US Supreme Court following the decision to overturn the Roe v Wade case. Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Celebration: Anti-abortion activists outside the US Supreme Court following the decision to overturn the Roe v Wade case. Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

‘The pendulum can swing back’: Niamh Uí Bhriain, an activist with the Life Institute. Photo by Mark Condren

‘The pendulum can swing back’: Niamh Uí Bhriain, an activist with the Life Institute. Photo by Mark Condren

On the march: Anti-abortion protesters in Dublin in July 2013. They are due back on the capital’s streets today

On the march: Anti-abortion protesters in Dublin in July 2013. They are due back on the capital’s streets today

‘[This judgment] shows that the trajectory is not all one way’: Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín. Photo by Frank Mc Grath

‘[This judgment] shows that the trajectory is not all one way’: Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín. Photo by Frank Mc Grath

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Celebration: Anti-abortion activists outside the US Supreme Court following the decision to overturn the Roe v Wade case. Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Ireland’s anti-abortion activists may be in something of an optimistic mood today as they march through Dublin at their annual Rally for Life. This year’s theme is “rethink abortion”.

It is four years since their side was defeated in the Eighth Amendment referendum as the electorate voted by a landslide to repeal the near-total ban on abortion. It seemed in May 2018 as though an issue that had dominated politics for generations had been resolved. But the US Supreme Court’s historic decision on June 24 to overturn the Roe v Wade judgment, which from 1973 had in effect underpinned the right to abortion across America, has given the anti-abortion movement new heart.

Cora Sherlock, a long-time activist with the Pro Life Campaign, tweeted in the aftermath: “The overturning of Roe v Wade signals the beginning of the end of abortion worldwide. The momentum will eventually reach Ireland, it’s only a matter of time.”

Sherlock told Review this week: “The significance of its overturning cannot be overestimated. It’s going to turn the tide on abortion. The situation in Ireland will turn back to what it was — we will get back to a situation where babies have full protection. There is still a long way to go in America, but the loss of Roe v Wade is a massive step forward.”

The decision by the Supreme Court in 1973 found that a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy was protected under the US constitution on the grounds of privacy. It has had a profound influence on Irish politics ever since.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, anti-abortion activists in Ireland feared that there could be a similar ruling here, and that terminations could be legalised by stealth.

They hoped to reinforce the Irish ban on abortion by inserting an article into the constitution acknowledging the “right to life of the unborn” in 1983. The right to life of the mother was put on an equal footing to that of the foetus as the referendum was carried.

After a succession of harrowing cases — including Savita Halappanavar, who died of sepsis in 2012 after being refused an abortion on legal grounds — the electorate voted to drop the amendment.

The change came after years of effective grassroots campaigning by a well-organised pro-choice movement that persisted for more than three-and-a-half decades.

If those campaigners thought that the anti-abortion activists would pack up their placards and go home after the referendum, they were mistaken. As one pro-choice activist said: “For us this is a battle and for them it is a war.”

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The great hope of anti-abortion campaigners in Ireland and elsewhere is a cultural transformation. Niamh Uí Bhriain, an activist with the Life Institute and co-founder of the militant group Youth Defence, says: “Repeal of the Eighth Amendment happened in Ireland because of culture change. But culture can change both ways. The pendulum can swing back.”

Uí Bhriain is pinning her hopes on demographic change that could bring about different in attitudes. “Demographic change worked in favour of the pro-life movement in the United States,” she says. “There was a big shift in the population in terms of the percentage that were Hispanic and that has tilted some constituencies in favour of those who are pro-life. It will be interesting to see the effect of demographic change in Ireland.”

Like Sherlock, Uí Bhriain has been heartened by the Roe v Wade ruling and says it gives hope that repeal of the Eighth Amendment is reversible. “What has happened in the United States will reverberate around the world,” she says. “It shows the power of perseverance, staying the course and keeping the fight alive.”

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‘The pendulum can swing back’: Niamh Uí Bhriain, an activist with the Life Institute. Photo by Mark Condren

‘The pendulum can swing back’: Niamh Uí Bhriain, an activist with the Life Institute. Photo by Mark Condren

‘The pendulum can swing back’: Niamh Uí Bhriain, an activist with the Life Institute. Photo by Mark Condren

What is striking about recent anti-abortion activism is the lack of involvement by senior Catholic church figures. Even in the referendum, most bishops seemed to have little stomach for the struggle. Without a major political party behind them, how can the campaigners hope to reverse the landmark referendum decision? In the US, their counterparts could rely on the support of many Republicans, even though opinion polls tend to show a majority in favour of abortion.

Uí Bhriain believes in a three-pronged strategy. Firstly, she backs giving support, through a network of canvassers and activists, to politicians who campaign against abortion.

Secondly, she says the movement should be directly helping women with crisis pregnancies. “If you don’t support women [in these situations], you are never going to change the culture,” she adds.

Thirdly, she believes in continuous public awareness campaigns. “You have to keep shining a light on the reality of abortion and not shy away from that,” she says.

It is not just the US that is an anti-abortion beacon of light for Uí Bhriain and other activists. The movement here is looking at positive outcomes for campaigners in Poland, Hungary and Croatia for inspiration.

Poland in effect banned abortion in 1993 with exceptions only when a woman’s life or health is endangered, or if the pregnancy results from rape or incest.

Peadar Tóibín, the ex-Sinn Féin TD who set up the anti-abortion party Aontú, says of the ruling in the US: “It will give solace and hope to many people who want to see every life protected.”

He adds: There is no doubt that those who have a human-right-to-life perspective have been battered and bruised in terms of campaigns over the past four or five years. The Supreme Court judgment] shows that the trajectory is not all one way.”

Carol Nolan, another former Sinn Féin TD who campaigns against abortion, says of the judgment: “It will, and already has, strengthened the belief that the momentum towards the continual expansion of abortion ‘rights’ is not irreversible or open to challenge. For politicians like myself, the hope is that it will not take Ireland 50 years and unimaginable levels of loss.”

She accepts, however, that the situation is unlikely to change in the short term.

“The political trajectory on abortion is overwhelmingly aimed towards expansion and liberalisation and I do not see that changing any time soon,” she says.

For the moment, the focus of the anti-abortion movement is on limiting abortion services in Ireland and the effects of the current law, and as Uí Bhriain puts it, “chipping away at public opinion”.

Tóibín says one of his aims is stop abortion on the grounds of disability, gender and poverty.

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‘[This judgment] shows that the trajectory is not all one way’: Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín. Photo by Frank Mc Grath

‘[This judgment] shows that the trajectory is not all one way’: Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín. Photo by Frank Mc Grath

‘[This judgment] shows that the trajectory is not all one way’: Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín. Photo by Frank Mc Grath

Activists will continue to borrow techniques and strategies used effectively in the US.

“It’s a global movement and a lot of ideas are shared in terms of seeing what works and what doesn’t,” Uí Bhriain says. “We all learn from each other. Ireland learns from the United States and the United States learns from Ireland.”

Perhaps the most controversial strategy has been the holding of demonstrations and prayer vigils outside GP surgeries and maternity units offering abortion services.

A survey for the Abortion Rights Campaign found that 14pc of participants said they encountered anti-abortion activity while attempting to access these services.

Separately, Dr Camilla Fitzsimons, a Maynooth University academic and pro-choice supporter, carried out research among 75 abortion providers.

She found up to 44pc reported some attempt to disrupt their services, including picketing. Protests outside providers were reported in 10 counties — Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Limerick, Roscommon, Tipperary, Waterford and Wicklow.

Recent figures from the HSE showed that just 10pc of all GPs nationally had opted into provide abortion services. The services are extremely sparse in many rural areas.

Only 11 of the country’s 19 maternity units are providing termination of pregnancy.

It is understood hospitals that are not providing abortion services are either under-resourced, or they have a number of consultant obstetricians who conscientiously object to abortion.

Dr Fitzsimons, author of the book Repealed, says: “The biggest problem in Ireland is conscientious objection, which is allowed for in law. Many other countries don’t have conscientious objection. If you want to work in the public sector, work in another part of medicine. You don’t have to work in obstetric care.”

She adds that the failure to legislate for safe-access zones has had an effect.

“It is understandable that GPs would be fearful or have concerns about their names being publicised, when we know that this brings demonstrations outside some clinics,” she says. “GPs may be reluctant to provide the service when they have not been given any legislative protections.”

To pro-choice campaigners, the demonstrations outside clinics amount to a form of harassment, and it is not a tactic advocated by all of those on the anti-abortion side. “It is not something that I have been involved with myself,” Tóibín says. “My instinct is that hospitals are probably not the best place [for protests].”

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On the march: Anti-abortion protesters in Dublin in July 2013. They are due back on the capital’s streets today

On the march: Anti-abortion protesters in Dublin in July 2013. They are due back on the capital’s streets today

On the march: Anti-abortion protesters in Dublin in July 2013. They are due back on the capital’s streets today

Despite these reservations, he cautions against a government banning what he terms “peaceful engagement”.

“The day that we start to make public protests, demonstrations or support or speech illegal would be a significant threat to the functioning of our democratic society,” he says. “I would urge anybody involved to be respectful, peaceful and kind.”

Today’s rally will be a good gauge of the anti-abortion movement’s strength. But it is also likely to galvanise the campaign for improved abortion rights, and discourage complacency.

“The pro-choice movement has never gone away and in my book [about the repeal referendum] I count 30 groups that are still together,” Dr Fitzsimons says.

“Much of that is down to the quality of abortion laws in Ireland. There are still significant barriers in place for many people who need to access reproductive healthcare.”

Under current legislation, abortion is available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. There must be at least three days between being certified and having the procedure. (Terminations after 12 weeks are permitted in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or a risk to the mother’s life or health).

The waiting period has been opposed by the World Health Organisation. The Abortion Rights Campaign’s survey of service users found that the majority of respondents had a negative view of the waiting period. Participants described the mandatory delay as “demeaning” and as inducing “undue stress and anxiety”.

Paula Dennan, co-convenor of the Abortion Rights Campaign, says: “The news that Roe v Wade was overturned, while not unexpected, was a shock. For us, it feeds into what we have been saying since repeal. Repealing the Eighth Amendment was only ever the starting point, and improvements are needed. This shows that we can’t be complacent anywhere.”

While the overturning of Roe v Wade has offered hope to the anti-abortion side here, it has also shone an international light on Ireland’s former constitutional ban on abortion and the marathon campaign to repeal it.

The influential US News & World Report said that the US “may find itself on a path similar to that trodden by the Irish people from 1983 to 2018. Now that Roe has been reversed and abortion may be illegal in much of the US, pregnant people could face forced pregnancy, suffering and even death — as was the case in Ireland prior to 2018.”

Another article in the Washington Post said: “US rights groups must now turn to successful campaigns in Latin America and in Ireland for inspiration and advice on mobilising voters, galvanising legislators and widening support”.

The report highlighted how the Irish pro-choice movement used an effective tactic in making the discussion about familiar, real people and their families rather than women in general.

The newspaper said Irish campaigners used personal stories and ordinary families’ testimonies to great effect, under the slogan: “Who needs your Yes?”

Over the coming years, anti-abortion campaigners will hope to wind the clock back to before 2018, and they are in for the long haul.

After the Roe v Wade ruling, abortion is again a live issue in Irish politics and both sides are as determined as ever to win the next battle.


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