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How American Christians Are Swaying Ireland’s Abortion Referendum

The vote could have immense repercussions for religious fights worldwide—and U.S. conservative groups aren’t sitting it out.

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

On May 25, the Republic of Ireland will hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment of its constitution, which criminalizes abortion in most cases. The amendment is a product of Ireland’s Catholic character, and the vote is the latest challenge to the Church’s influence in the country. Irish voters chose to legalize same-sex marriage by referendum in 2015, and legalizing abortion would only reinforce Ireland’s secular drift.

For the Christian right, in America and abroad, Ireland’s abortion vote is therefore significant: It will either bolster or damage a legal regime that enforces one of its most closely held religious positions. The fight to restrict abortion is a global one. The American Christian right, in particular, has taken a keen interest in the referendum, and there’s concrete evidence that some factions have tried to influence the vote, both by purchasing Facebook ads and sending activists to Ireland to campaign on behalf of the Eighth Amendment.

Their influence could be critical. While those advocating repeal (the “Yes” campaign) enjoyed a strong lead as the campaign began this spring, that advantage shrank steadily over time. An Irish Times/Ipsos Mori poll released on May 17 still gave “Yes” a lead of 44 percent, compared to 32 percent for “No,” but there are fears that voters in rural Ireland may yet tip the vote to uphold the Eighth, and in a post-Brexit/post-Trump world no one is taking anything for granted.

Because the Catholic Church remains a powerful force in Ireland, and because the constitution itself can only be amended through a referendum, the substance of the law has changed little since 1937. The Irish Supreme Court forced an adjustment in 1992, when it ruled that a 14-year-old girl could legally obtain an abortion in the U.K.; previously, Irish women could face criminal penalties at home for getting abortions abroad. In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Eighth Amendment had violated the human rights of an Irish woman with a medical condition who needed an abortion. (It ruled against claims that the ban harmed two other women who did not report illnesses.) Two American Christian groups—the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom—worked together to defend Ireland’s abortion laws in that case.

On its website, the Family Research Council cites Ireland’s comparatively low maternal mortality rate as a possible “secular argument” against abortion rights. But that statistic doesn’t necessarily capture the impact of the law. Sarah Murphy, who works with the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, told me that roughly 2,000 Irish women travel to the U.K. for abortions every year. The practice makes abortion something of a luxury commodity. “You have to travel, you have to leave the country. That’s the single option that you have if you want to terminate a pregnancy legally,” Murphy explained.

Not all women can afford the trip, and campaigners say that they resort to ordering abortion pills online or getting illegal abortions. Added Murphy, “While those pills are generally safe, they don’t have access to any physician, or any medical supervision or guidance or support. So if there were any adverse affects or any issues with taking that medication they can’t turn to anybody because they are doing it illegally and they are afraid of prosecution.”

While Ireland does technically permit abortion to save the life of the mother, hospitals and doctors have still blocked some critically ill women from terminating their pregnancies. As a result, women have died. Friday’s referendum owes its existence in part to one prominent, preventable death: the 2012 case of Savita Halappanavar. Halappanavar, a dentist, had reported to Galway Hospital with a likely miscarriage of her 17-week pregnancy. Doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy; Halappanavar later died of sepsis. An inquest completed in 2017 found that the Eighth Amendment directly contributed to Halappanavar’s death.

In 2011, physicians stopped Michele Harte’s chemotherapy treatments due to her pregnancy. Harte’s personal physician, Dr. Louise Kenny, recommended abortion, but a Cork University Maternity Hospital ethics committee determined that the pregnancy did not put her life at risk. Harte travelled to the U.K. for a termination, but by then she’d already missed weeks of cancer treatment. She later died.

Kenny told the Irish Times this year that Irish law had even prevented her from referring Harte to a U.K. hospital. Harte had to figure it out on her own. “It goes against everything I’ve been trained to do as a doctor, and all of us, as gynaecologists,” Kenny said. “We can’t refer patients but we send them to hospitals in the U.K. where we’ve worked, where we have colleagues, where we know that they will be looked after but it’s not ideal—it’s obscene.”

Advocates say the law is so restrictive that it has prevented some women from seeking medical treatment for the aftermath of an illegal termination. The website of Together for Yes, a civil campaign organized to repeal the amendment, features one such story: A mother of three avoided seeking medical treatment, even though she experienced sustained bleeding after taking illegal abortion pills. “I’m sure it would have been suspicious to turn up at the doctor a week after a ‘miscarriage,’ having sought no medical help at the time,” she reported.

The “Christian right” is a loose term for a religiously diverse group. In the U.S., it’s best understood as an occasionally fraught, informal coalition of Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon organizations and denominational bodies that unite on some issues while diverging on others. They tend to agree on the immorality of abortion and same-sex marriage, though not necessarily on specific policy or political tactics. The coalition’s strength is most visible on domestic issues, such as California’s Proposition 8 on same-sex marriage, opposition to trans bathroom laws, and campaigns against abortion rights and certain anti-discrimination provisions.

But Christianity, of course, is a global faith, and individual Christians have global concerns. Since campaigning for the Irish referendum began, American anti-choice activists have travelled to Ireland to proselytize at length in defense of the Eighth Amendment. As CNN reported on Wednesday, members of the Colorado-based anti-choice group Let Them Live travelled to Ireland to canvass on behalf of the amendment for a solid month before the vote. At one demonstration documented by The New York Times in March, most protesters were American. A review of GoFundMe revealed fundraising campaigns set up by American anti-abortion activists seeking money to travel to Ireland; several identify themselves as students at Christendom College, a conservative Catholic school in Fort Royal, Virginia.

Some U.S.-based activists are waging an online influence campaign. Although Ireland does regulate overseas donations to domestic campaigns, a loophole allows anyone to purchase Facebook ads urging Irish citizens to vote in a particular way. reported in April that a review completed by the Transparent Referendum Initiative found that “145 groups and individuals have bought more than 350 Facebook ads about the referendum.” Some are Irish, but many are American, and while some of these would-be influencers are pro-choice, others include U.S.-based anti-abortion organizations like the Radiance Foundation and Live Action.

This isn’t the first time Americans have tried to sway an Irish vote. Christian right groups similarly tried to influence the country’s referendum on same-sex marriage. And some Irish groups welcome the assistance, as they work closely with American groups to restrict abortion and LGBT rights at home and abroad. “In general, the U.S. Christian right works on several different planes: grassroots, policy/government level, and litigation,” explained Gillian Kane, a senior policy and advocacy adviser for Ipas, a global reproductive rights non-profit. “In a Catholic country like Ireland, grassroots organizing is facilitated through U.S. Catholic NGOs like the Virginia-based Human Life International, which has a dedicated office in Mayo, Ireland.”

Human Life International Ireland also has links to the U.S.-based World Congress of Families (WCF), which organizes a series of right-wing conferences under the umbrella of the International Organization for the Family (IOF). IOF’s president is Brian Brown, the former head of the National Organization for Marriage. The group also lists Allan Carlson as its “John Howard Senior Fellow and Editor of The Natural Family: An International Journal of Research and Policy.” In 2005, Carlson and his colleague Paul Mero published a “manifesto” that identifies “human depopulation” as “the true demographic danger facing the earth,” calls for bans on abortion and no-fault divorce, and urges employers to pay a “family wage” to “heads of households” (i.e. men) to reinforce “the natural bonds of family.”

By 2014, World Congresses had occurred in Prague, Geneva, Warsaw, Moscow, and Sydney, among other major world cities. Most host nations experienced an uptick in broader anti-LGBT activity or specific anti-LGBT legislation as a result. Poland attempted to ban “homosexual propaganda;” Russia has actually done so. Global reach is an integral part of the WCF’s mission, as Masha Gessen reported for Harper’s in 2017; Carlson founded the group after he and a group of Russian sociologists became “convinced” that the “degradation of the natural family” had contributed to Russia’s population decline.

WCF and groups like it provide networking and resources for ideological allies overseas. As a global coalition, Christian right groups have become an effective lobby. Human Life International Ireland, like the WCF, boasts consultative status at the United Nations, where it says on its website that it lobbies against abortion rights.

As Peter Montgomery reported for Public Eye magazine in 2016, the Christian right is particularly active at the United Nations Human Rights Committee. One American group, Family Watch International, deployed a team of 20 volunteers to attend a 2016 meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, where they lobbied individuals against explicit references to reproductive rights. Groups like the Center for Family and Human Rights, Concerned Women for America, and the International Right to Life Foundation consistently work as part of an international alliance to influence a global body that has criticized Irish abortion law for violating women’s human rights.

Added Kane, “Groups like the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom have litigated cases in Europe and Latin America at the national and regional level. The work of these groups is aimed at eliminating access to legal health services, and specifically at eroding the legal mechanisms that protect this access. This goes not just for women’s health services, but equally profoundly, to human rights protections against discrimination.”

Irish voters may reject the Eighth Amendment on Friday. But even if they do, the international alliance that tried to influence the vote won’t quietly accept defeat. The far right is on the rise in Europe and elsewhere, which will give the Christian right more of an edge at international bodies like the U.N. as well as within a domestic context. For Christian activist groups, this is a matter of conviction. The idea that human beings possess the right to terminate pregnancies or engage in same-sex activity transgresses the most profound tenets of a sacred belief system. Friday’s result is a life-or-death matter, and that is the only area upon which either side agrees.