US rules protect illegal anti-abortion robocalls

An investigation into a flood of illegal anti-abortion robocalls to thousands of homes in Ireland could stall — because of free speech protections in the US.

Regulators in Ireland have linked the calls to a telephone number of an anti-abortion activist living in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, according to a weekend report.

The Data Protection Commissioner’s office asked authorities in the US to investigate further.

The unsolicited calls made last month, which provoked hundreds of complaints to the Data Protection Commissioner, vigorously defended Ireland’s restrictive abortion practices following the death of Savita Halappanavar.

Irish investigators traced the calls to an employee of Personhood USA living in Colorado, according to a weekend report in the Washington Post, quoting an unnamed source close to the probe.

However, the investigation could stall as US communications regulators are unlikely to look into the matter further at their end as the content of the calls was political, and therefore free-speech protected.

Personhood USA and its affiliates across the country campaigns for the foetus to be recognised as a person, thereby designating abortion as murder.

It has managed to organise a small number of state ballot initiatives, or referenda, but all have been soundly defeated.

US groups, both those that oppose and support abortion, are closely following the events and debate in Ireland, with some allegations of financial support flowing across the Atlantic.

The Data Protection Commissioner confirmed he had been in touch with a communication regulator in another country after receiving a record 500 complaints.

However, authorities in Ireland might be out of luck in asking for help from the Federal Trade Commission in the US.

FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan said: “It is unlikely the commission would assist in a matter that involves non-commercial calls, which are outside the FTC’s jurisdiction.”

While all robocalls — unsolicited taped calls sent to an almost unlimited number of people — are banned in Ireland, and carry hefty fines, they are deemed political in the US and therefore protected under the first amendment right to free speech.

The voice on the calls, a man with an Irish accent, quoted leading Galway obstetrician Eamon O’Dwyer: “I want to reassure you that Irish doctors do not put mothers’ lives at risk and we are always obliged to save mothers’ lives, even if that results in the unfortunate death of an unborn child.”

Dr O’Dwyer has publicly disassociated himself from the calls and said he was not aware his comment were going to be used in any robocall campaign.

Investigators believe the calls were arranged by a website that offers calling services across the globe.

They have further identified a number linked to the calls which has also appeared on websites for Personhood USA and an offshoot, Personhood Colorado.

That number has been tracked to a Personhood USA employee living in Arvada, a Denver suburb.


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