A Youth for Life anti-abortion campaigner. Photo: Youth for Life/Facebook. Irish politicians have been deaf to the clamour of women’s voices calling for abortion rights for decades. Despite being the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote (in 2015), the republic of Ireland still maintains an abortion regime stricter than Saudi Arabia’s.
Abortion is legal in Ireland only when the mother’s life is at risk. The country’s constitutional misogyny has baffled fellow European states and earned it the censure of international groups including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and Amnesty International.
In northern Ireland, women carry the passports but not the entitlements of British citizens (who have had access to legal abortions for 50 years, since 1967). This island seems united in its deliberate disregard for women’s fundamental rights if nowhere else; those seeking terminations from either side of the border must travel abroad.
‘This island seems united in its deliberate disregard for women’s fundamental rights if nowhere else.’
Yesterday the Irish government announced that a referendum will be held next year, in May or June, on whether to repeal a constitutional amendment that gives equal rights to a woman and her unborn child, thus opening the door to legalising abortion.
Battle lines have been drawn between those who want the eighth amendment repealed, and those fighting to keep it. In northern Ireland, anti-abortion lobbying has so far succeeded in blocking attempts to bring reproductive rights in line with the rest of the UK.
On the frontline are two anti-abortion groups who work loosely together across the border: Precious Life in northern Ireland and Youth Defence in the south.
In the past, both groups spent their time protesting against family planning clinics holding nightmarish posters purporting to show ‘the aborted baby’ (despite the fact that abortion was already illegal) and assuring those of us trying to enter that we were going straight to hell.
Today these groups have successfully attracted articulate millennial women to their ranks, who are then placed front and centre to recruit others. Grisly images remain, but threats of eternal damnation have been replaced with “Love Life” protests and “Rally For Life” marches.
The tone has titled to mirror the language of human rights activism and growing pro-choice movements that have been propelled by a new and active, engaged and connected generation. The last five years have seen rising pro-choice mobilisation in Dublin, Belfast and elsewhere, amid 'repeal the eighth' campaigns.
Precious Life at the ‘Rally for Life’ in Dublin. Photo: Lucy Kelly/Youth for Life/Facebook.In July I joined the youth brigade of Precious Life, called Youth For Life NI, as they embarked on a summer roadshow tour of northern Ireland. They visited eight towns and cities in a week, almost at the same time as a similar Youth Defence tour, which made 17 stops across the rest of Ireland over ten days.
Appointed to speak to me was the eloquent and charming 20-year-old Lucy Kelly, who joined Precious Life through an affiliate group at Queen’s University in Belfast, where she studies law. Kelly describes herself as a “pro-life feminist”. She's a committed campaigner and, I gathered, a serial over-achiever.
“Abortion is absolutely femicide”, she told me. “Consider who is aborted now – over half of the babies are female. So many times it’s about gender selective abortions. It’s this whole thing about women’s rights, but what about a woman’s right to be born?”
“What about a woman’s right to be born?”
Kelly is a strong communicator and her talent is clearly being recognised within the organisation. At this year’s ‘Rally For Life’ in Dublin, she was tasked with introducing the entire march before it kicked off.
This march is the highlight of the Irish anti-abortion calendar, and a potent display of the immensely well-connected, church-backed and community-centred lobby. This year, organisers claim 70,000 people attended (though this figure is disputed).
When we met, Kelly and half a dozen other young activists were cheerfully handing out pamphlets, featuring improbable horror stories from US abortion clinics, to shoppers caught in Belfast’s summer rain.
They had set up a table displaying aged plastic props – a womb and vagina, and foetuses at different stages of development – and advertisements for Stanton Healthcare, founded by US Christian activist Brandi Swindell, that opened its first overseas anti-abortion clinic in Belfast in 2014, on the same central street as reproductive rights charity Marie Stopes.
Swindell, described by Cosmopolitan magazine as ‘the woman who wants to take down Planned Parenthood’, is also one of the founders of a group called ‘Generation Life’, which recruits young anti-abortion campaigners and teaches abstinence as a form of contraception. Swindell has also worked with Youth Defence in Ireland.
Lucy Kelly (left) in Dublin at the ‘Rally For Life’. Photo: Youth for Life/Facebook.“We are not anti-women”, Kelly insists. “We want to save both the life of the mother and the life of the baby – we want better care for both.”
Youth for Life is small – “we're about 30 really pro-active and engaged members,” Kelly says – but has a large network of supporters offline and, increasingly, online. Among other things Precious Life sends out weekly emails, which Youth For Life contributes to, with updates for supporters and requests for donations.
Their funding, Kelly insists, does not come from the US, as is widely believed to be the case, and instead is from “grassroots” activists. But there is certainly a level of collaboration across the Atlantic. “Pro-life people stick together," she says. "The big march in Washington DC, [the] numbers get bigger every year. Some of us are actually hoping to go...this year.”
There are also links being built across Europe: for this summer’s roadshow in northern Ireland, the group was also joined by activists from a Slovakian anti-abortion group. “People all over seem to be waking up,” says Kelly.
“Pro-life people stick together.”
Kelly laments that “the media are very biased in favour of abortion,” and that “the media totally misinforms people of the facts.” To this she said: “bring on the referendum, because you will lose.”
There’s a slightly counter-culture feel to it all: Kelly's group is small, but everyone I meet is under 30 and appears deeply invested in trying to win over the hearts and minds of those few members of the public who did stop to challenge their views.
They presented themselves as activists for truth more than God, who wasn’t mentioned as far as I could hear – at least not in the conversations I was trying to earwig.
Young anti-abortion activists on the roadshow. Photo: Youth for Life/Facebook.“Something we don’t hear about is how women die in legal abortions,” Kelly adds. “There was a woman from Ireland who died in Marie Stopes in London. Hundreds of women have [died] from so-called safe and legal abortion – look it up online.”
The weaving together of facts, anecdote and fictions is disarming. Abortion is a safe medical procedure (in the US less than 1% of terminations results in complications), but it’s likely she was talking about the preventable death of 32-year-old Aisha Chithira who died in London hours after having an abortion at 22 weeks in January 2012.
At the time, Chithira’s husband told the The Irish Times that she had first gone to a maternity hospital in Dublin but was denied a termination. In Ireland on student visas, the couple’s journey to England was delayed as they raised travel funds. Late term abortions carry significantly higher risks; staff involved in Chithira’s care were cleared of negligence charges in 2016.
But this tragedy has been twisted by both Precious Life and Youth Defence online, and seized upon by activists in the US who leverage the immense power of social media to tell highly emotional stories peppered with truth that promote their agenda.
“The internet helps massively of course”, Kelly told me. “Social media is massive for us, and when it’s used well it can be extremely effective.”
“Social media is massive for us.”
The array of websites framed by anti-rights and anti-abortion ideology that have emerged over the past decade could be seen as a case study in the power of “fake news”.
During the roadshow, another young woman anti-abortion activist said: “I wasn’t always pro-life, I agreed with abortion under some circumstances, but then I saw something on Facebook that had a profound impact on me.” Then, she said, “the more I started looking into it and researching it on Facebook, the more pro-life I became."
Grim online videos, including notoriously deceptive 2015 undercover films, made by the anti-abortion Centre for Medical Progress inside Planned Parenthood clinics in the US, are particularly potent currency on Facebook.
In the social media giant’s attempts to become a video-led platform, algorithms alert users to videos based on their ‘likes’. And so a particularly distressing video by a man called Dr. Anthony Levatino recently appeared on my radar.
The video, which has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube alone, purports to show a first-trimester abortion. It’s currently at the centre of a hunger strike outside Irish parliament, by a young man who says he will not eat until the prime minister watches it.
The hunger striker is also a member of Youth Defence, and has previously run as an independent candidate in the Irish general election. Being anti-abortion in Ireland brings a certain level of political capital with it that election hopefuls eagerly cash in.
This year’s Rally for Life march in Dublin. Photo: Youth for Life/Facebook. This summer, Kelly found a number of male politicians willing to appear in a Youth for Life promotional video that is now on their Facebook page.
What’s more, she said that one of the politicians featured in the video boasted, separately, about refusing to help a constituent who came to his office asking for assistance to get to England to obtain an abortion.
"I don’t ever feel like I am on the losing side.”
“We were really lucky with the roadshow in that most of the major parties agreed to meet us,” said Kelly, naming the SDLP, UUP and DUP as among them. “Our big campaign at the moment is ‘lobby for life’...to encourage people to contact their representatives, as they will be the ones deciding on any changes to the law."
Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster also met with Youth for Life this summer, and assured them that she would work to protect existing anti-abortion laws.
Looking ahead, Kelly seemed confident that the eighth amendment will stay in place, and that northern Ireland will continue to be a place where women’s reproductive rights are restricted.
“There will always be obstacles, but we have to stay positive,” she said. “In the pro-life movement, everyone is extremely happy. Everyone is fighting for life. I don’t ever feel like I am on the losing side.”
Read more from Lara Whyte and other 50.50 writers tracking the backlash against our sexual and reproductive rights.