On the ground: Ireland’s pro-life movement fights back

By Jonathon Van Maren

The large billboards facing the Irish public from alongside roadways and town centres are a stark reminder: “21,000 babies aborted since 2019, more than the population of Sligo. STOP ABORTING our FUTURE.” They are part of the Life Institute’s Time to Think campaign, confronting those who voted to do away with the 8th Amendment with the reality of what those votes have wrought. It has been four years since the Irish people removed constitutional protections for pre-born children and triggered a worldwide eruption of congratulations and celebration from progressive leaders, journalists, and abortion activists. Ireland’s pro-life movement was left reeling and grief-stricken.

In May of 2018, I joined the Save the 8th campaign with several colleagues in the leadup to the vote. I was impressed by the sheer dedication of the pro-life movement, and the more I spoke to various grassroots organizers and volunteers, the more I became aware that there was a fascinating story here not being told by the press. In almost every Western nation, pro-life movements sprung up in response to the legalization of abortion. In Ireland, however, a handful of prescient pro-life activists responded to Roe v. Wade by launching a campaign that resulted in a 1983 referendum that put the 8th Amendment into the Irish constitution. It was an unprecedented pre-emptive strike by pro-life activists, and it kept abortion out of Ireland for 35 years, saving—at a minimum—250,000 lives.

As Irish journalist Rosanna Cooney begrudgingly noted: “To forget the sophistication and efficacy of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, which orchestrated a ban on abortion in Ireland, is to forget one of the great political coups of the 20th century.”

I had the privilege of telling the story of one of Europe’s most successful social movements in my 2020 book Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement. A key reason for the Irish pro-life movement’s effectiveness is that they put boots on the ground with door-knocking and outreach (‘street sessions’) nearly every day in a country where abortion was already illegal. In response to constant pressure from activists to legalize abortion, a handful of young people led by Niamh Uí Bhriain and several others launched Youth Defence in response to the 1992 X case ruling which established a right to abortion if the woman’s life was at risk—including by suicide. Youth Defence became the gutsy vanguard of the movement, willing to engage in direct action and disrupt political conferences and settled consciences, a counter-revolutionary group of punks with a traditional twist.

For decades, influential pro-life lobbyists and frontline anti-abortion activists kept the issue at the forefront of Irish consciousness with both political pressure and relentless activism. It was not until the tragic 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar from septicemia, which was universally framed as a direct result of the 8th Amendment, that Middle Ireland (the broad centrist swathe of the population) was successfully persuaded that the 8th Amendment endangered women’s lives. The truth—that being denied an abortion had nothing to do with Savita’s death—was utterly lost in a global media firestorm. At long last, the abortion activists had a face—and Savita smiled down from nearly every telephone pole in Dublin during the leadup to the vote on May 25, 2018. The average Irish voter did not vote for abortion—they voted to save women like Savita. But what they got was abortion.

Walking to Trinity College to view the Book of Kells last month, I was startled to see Savita’s face once again peering down from a billboard, urging voters to action: “Savita: 10 Years On The March Goes On. Health. Equality. Bodily Autonomy.” The rally, advertised for October 29 in the Garden of Remembrance to the Dáil, is part of the abortion movement’s next push—to liberalize the regime that came into place in 2019 even further. The three-day waiting period is their primary target. As Life Institute has pointed out, 1 in 5 women may change their minds during this period, saving nearly 1,000 babies each year. Since legalization in January of 2019, there are roughly 128 abortions each week—and more than a school full of children are aborted each month. In the year prior to legalization, 2,879 women travelled to the UK for abortions, with roughly another 1,000 obtaining abortion pills. That rate has shot up over the past two years, and abortion campaigners are not finished using Savita’s tragic death to facilitate more feticide.


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