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July 21, 2019

Pro-life and pro-choice activists flock to Ireland in the hope of influencing abortion referendum voters

May 27, 2018
Emily Faulkner speaks to fellow “No” supporters at a Dublin rally on the 8th Amendment on abortion in Ireland on May 12. (Emily Faulkner)

DUBLIN — Ireland, a small country long known for being socially conservative, has found itself in the middle of the worldwide abortion debate.

The nation of 4.7 million will vote Friday in a yes-or-no referendum on whether to repeal the 8th Amendment, which bans abortion in almost all circumstances and says “the State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn.”

Polls show that the vote, called earlier this year by a prime minister in support of the repeal, is expected to be close, with the latest tallies showing “Yes” ahead but having lost ground in recent weeks.

There are also a large number of people undecided about whether to change a law that has differentiated their country from the rest of Western Europe and the United States, whose citizens have come to the island before the vote with attempts at persuasion.

“It’s something that I wish we had in the United States. That’s why pro-lifers from all over the world are supporting Ireland,” said Emily Faulkner, a 23-year-old American and pro-life activist from Colorado who came to the country earlier this month.

She, her fiancé and a group of up to nine others associated with her group Let Them Live were originally unsure of the legality of using tourist visas to be part of the referendum in a country outside their own, but are now traveling to different parts of the island and say they are focusing on providing information.

Faulkner, currently in the inland county of Tipperary, said that she has had positive chats even with those who disagree, but took issue with some of the taunts she has faced for coming over because “there are many other people on the pro-choice side who are from many different countries internationally who are doing the same thing.”

Progressive groups from Europe have also been in Ireland to support a repeal, and global organizations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International Ireland, which “No” campaigners had focused for accepting money from billionaire George Soros, have also been vocal in criticizing the current laws as violating women’s rights.

“There is a big gap between the UN saying we should do something and a group of somewhat fundamentalist people from America saying we should do something,” said Shane De Ris, the incoming president of the pro-choice Trinity College Dublin Student Union who was out campaigning near the school in the days before the vote.

De Ris likened this referendum to Ireland’s 2015 vote that legalized gay marriage, a previous marker of waning conservative and Catholic church influence in Ireland that also saw allegations of foreign influence.

Google and Facebook have both banned ads about the referendum on their platforms after fear of the foreign influence accusations that plagued recent elections around the world, and both sides have used a sense of Irishness to rally supporters.

Jane Butler, standing less than five minutes’ walk from De Ris on the central Grafton Street, said that she campaigned for marriage equality but is now passing out fliers for the “No” campaign.

The 20-year-old, who said she welcomes the Americans coming to campaign, said that she believes Ireland should do more to promote sex education and contraception, but that it “should be an example and make a stand as one of the countries with the strongest laws for the right to life.”

People hold up placards on Tuesday during a "Stand up for Life" rally calling for a 'no' vote in the upcoming referendum.
People hold up placards on Tuesday during a “Stand up for Life” rally calling for a ‘no’ vote in the upcoming referendum. (ARTUR WIDAK/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the common lines on the thousands of posters for both sides is the mention of the island’s longtime oppressor England, with placards for the “No” campaign mentioning the number of abortions there.

But the “Yes” campaign also uses what De Ris describes as “positivism nationalism” and posts posters that say “support her, don’t export her,” a reference the fact that many Irish women travel to other countries, most often England, to receive abortions.

Statistics from Britain’s National Health Service show that more than 3,000 women travel from Ireland for UK abortions each year, and more than 160,000 have done so since 1980.

“Ireland gets to choose if they want the Irish to take care of their own, or if they want to continue sending them to England,” said Mara Clarke, who grew up in Illinois and lived in New York before starting the Abortion Support Network in London.

The network, funded through private donations, helps finance the travels of Irish women who otherwise do not have money to travel to Britain for the procedure.

Clarke said she’s hoping that a “Yes” in the referendum helps make her organization obsolete, and added that the referendum and protests that led to it had also changed the issue of abortion so that it, and the travel of people to England, is discussed more openly.

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar poses with activists from the "Yes" campaign, urging people to vote “yes” in the referendum to repeal the abortion ban in Ireland.
Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar poses with activists from the “Yes” campaign, urging people to vote “yes” in the referendum to repeal the abortion ban in Ireland. (BARRY CRONIN/AFP/Getty Images)

“This whole referendum has shown that Ireland can no longer brush this under the carpet and say “well no one I know has had an abortion,” she said.

It is not clear what will happen in Friday’s vote, with the result likely depending on turnout, though the attention will likely keep it as an issue in Irish politics for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve talked to a few people and they say they will get another referendum” if “Yes” wins, said Faulkner, agreeing that the Irish debate would become more like the one in the United States where different restrictions and liberalizations are proposed, passed or rejected.

A “Yes” vote on Friday, which does not automatically make abortion legal, will likely lead to the passage of a law that legalizes abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, which has been recommended by a government committee.

That timeframe is more restrictive than regulations in the U.S., where the earliest abortion limit is 15 weeks in Mississippi.

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