Why American Pro-Life Dollars Are Pouring Into Ireland

Abortion opponents in the U.S. see the country as one of their last European allies.

Peter Morrison/AP Images

Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world with its constitutional guarantee of the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn. As a result, an average of 5,000 Irish women travel abroad for abortions every year while customs seize abortion pills purchased online. Compared to many other developed nations including the U.S., its pro-life movement would seem to be operating from an unusually dominant position, with relatively little to protest about. So why is the American pro-life lobby throwing its weight behind Ireland?

American abortion opponents have given hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to the Irish pro-life lobby, according to Joseph Scheidler, spokesman for the U.S.-based Pro-Life Action League.* Seeing Ireland as the last bastion of abortion-free Europe along with Malta, as he told the Sunday Business Post, Scheidler singled out the Irish pro-life group Youth Defence as one of the main recipients of funds from the U.S. because "They need the money for publicity. Abortion is about conversion and it's very hard to convert people in masses, and that is why people like Youth Defence go out into the street."

Youth Defence is perhaps best known for the shocking, enlarged poster images of aborted fetuses that they regularly display on Dublin's main thoroughfare and at stalls and demonstrations around the country. They were founded in 1992 in the family home of a long-time conservative organizer who famously uttered the words "Go away ye wife-swapping sodomites!" at pro-divorce campaigners and had other unkind words to say about feminists who used contraception, city-dwelling feminists, and feminists who were also foreigners. Her son and daughter are also co-founders of the affiliated group The Life Institute, who are currently being investigated by the state ethics watchdog for potential breach of lobbying regulations.

70 percent of Youth Defence's Twitter followers come from the U.S. and until recently their donation form was in dollars instead of euros. Nevertheless, the group is Irish and has quite a pedigree in Irish campaigning. Prominent spokespeople and supporters have included ultra-nationalist anti-immigration campaigners as well as anti-IVF, anti-divorce, anti-stem cell research, anti-gay rights and anti-contraception campaigners. They run national road shows, conferences, nationwide billboard campaigns and schools programmes, which they claim will make each new generation of young people "harder to fool than the abortion industry would have expected."

In 1992 Youth Defence's immediate goal was to campaign to ensure that the case of a 14-year-old suicidal rape victim who was not allowed to have an abortion abroad, which brought thousands onto the street in protest, would not lead to any liberalisation of abortion legislation. In 2006 they organised around the "Ms. D" case in which a 17-year-old had to fight a high court battle to be allowed to leave the state to have an abortion abroad. The girl had discovered that her baby was missing a substantial portion of its brain and skull and would be unable to survive outside the womb. Again Youth Defence opposed any legislation that would allow for abortion.

Now, all of this may leave you with the impression that the Irish people are as staunchly anti-abortion as their government. Certainly much of the international coverage in recent weeks following the death of a Savita Halappanavar, a woman who died in an Irish hospital having been refused an abortion, suggested as much. Cut-away shots on one Al Jazeera report gave the impression of Irish cities populated by spooky statues of the Virgin Mary.

The harshness of the Irish state on this issue is actually something of an anachronism in a country whose citizens are abandoning religion more rapidly than almost any other in the world. The Irish people have long been more liberal on abortion than their government. The fact that Youth Defence has been able to impose their will more effectively than the Irish people or the European Court of Human Rights for so long is testament to the power of their enormously well-funded campaigns.

Because of such groups, Ireland is still a place where smear campaigns against government ministers who express even the most limited pro-choice sentiments are commonplace. Much heat was generated on Twitter recently, in a controversy dubbed #listgate, when a pro-life pundit threatened to publish the names of journalists who had expressed pro-choice sentiments on social media following the death of Halappanavaar, thus bringing their objectivity as reporters into question. Youth Defence recently distributed literature to 1.4 million homes and used advertising space in 25 newspapers to attack particular politicians for their role in "opening the door to abortion on demand".

Last month the Irish government took a first step toward loosening its anti-abortion legislation when it revealed its plan to allow abortion when the mother's life is at risk. This move had public support but it will apply to very few of the thousands who travel for abortions every year. The majority of the population remains against abortion on demand.

Collective shame is a hard thing to shake. In school, a pro-life religion teacher showed my class the gruesome and misleading anti-abortion video The Silent Scream. Rather than feeling outraged by this, most of the girls I went to school with would rather not talk about the issue and some undoubtedly feel a sense of shame at having taken that lonely trip to England themselves like so many before them.

Scheidler says that Ireland has great symbolic importance to the pro-life movement. As a younger, bolder pro-choice generation seems to be emerging in Ireland and demanding more radical measures, the issue will inevitably have to come to a referendum to change the constitution and the American pro-life lobby may fear the last bastion of abortion-free Europe will be lost forever. But if this generation of pro-choice activists is still counting small change by then, what Youth Defence and their American sponsors are preparing for won't be much of a fight.

*This post originally stated that the Pro-Life Action League had pledged money to support Irish anti-abortion efforts. We regret the error.