Raising the stakes

The Irish pro-life movement has gone global with a professional and sophisticated campaign, but will those involved adopt the heavy-handed tactics of their counterparts in the US, asks John Hearne

Raising the stakes

YOU only have to look at the Youth Defence Facebook page to understand just how international the pro-life movement has become. Messages of support flood in from fans overseas. ‘Thank you, our dear Irish pro-lifers! You inspire other nations to keep fighting for life!’ says one. Another posts about an upcoming pro-life march in Washington DC. Someone from California offers congratulations on the recent pro-life vigil in Dublin.

US anti-abortion sites provide links to Irish sites on their web pages, while Irish sites return the favour. The recent 40 Days For Life campaign, begun in Texas nine years ago, ran in nearly 500 locations in 15 countries last year. Abort67, which has recently stepped up its protest campaign on clinics in Britain, is affiliated with one of the most strident voices in the American pro-life scene, the Centre for Bioethical Reform (CBR).

As the abortion debate bubbled away beneath the surface of Irish life for two decades, the pro-life movement went professional. The aforementioned vigil in Dublin is a good example of just how far they have come.

‘Unite for Life’ was a combined effort from four pro-life organisations: Pro Life Campaign (PLC), Youth Defence, the Life Institute and Family and Life; this is another feature of the movement. Despite the range of disparate groups involved, it is capable of a remarkable level of cohesiveness. Held in Merrion Square, Dublin, on Jan 19, it was carried off with a degree of professionalism and attention to detail any PR exec would be proud of.

Over 100 free busses conveyed the faithful — and the movement remains largely faith-based — from all over the country to Dublin. On arrival in Merrion Square, the protestors were met not with the back of a lorry, but a high-end stage, complete with sound system and surmounted by two big screens. Security personnel shepherded new arrivals to the large enclosure in front of the stage.

It was clear from the beginning that the organisers set out to create a visually appealing event. People carrying homemade placards weren’t allowed through. The shock images of dismembered foetuses were notably absent. At a marquee you could pick up one of the glossy posters professionally designed for the occasion. The carefully selected colour schemes and thousands of paper candle holders transformed what could have been just another pro-life rally into something approaching a film set.

As the event climaxed, Youth Defence chairman Dr Eamon De Faoite, stood on the platform before the jubilant crowd and telephoned Enda Kenny on his mobile. Connected to the Taoiseach’s voicemail, De Faoite got all 25,000 there to roar ‘Keep your pro-life promise’.

The contrast between this jamboree and the simultaneous pro-choice rally on the far side of the square could not have been greater. Here, there was no shortage of cardboard among the small groups of protestors strung out along the footpath, while pedestrians passed by unhindered behind them. The gardaí estimated afterwards that 200 people attended this protest.

Such is the strength and professionalism of the Irish pro-life movement that activists from other countries are travelling here to see how it’s done. “Our approach is multifaceted,” says a spokesperson from Youth Defence. “(It’s) focused on public engagement and strives for excellence in messaging. We’ve had teams of young pro-life activists come to Ireland from the US and right across the world to learn the Irish model.”

Last year alone, Youth Defence ran four major campaigns, two of which were run in partnership with the Life Institute, the group’s sister organisation in the North. Together, they blitzed 1.4 million homes with anti-abortion literature and financed a major advertising campaign urging Enda Kenny to ‘Close the Door on Abortion’.

In addition, Youth Defence runs weekly ‘street sessions’ in Dublin Cork, Galway and other towns. These sessions have an altogether different vibe to that of the recent event in Merrion Square, and pictures of dismembered foetuses are prominently displayed. “We show the reality of abortion,” says the spokesperson.

In Britain and the US, hardcore anti-abortion protesters zero in on clinics where terminations are carried out. Protestors will often trail a woman to the clinic, imploring her not to abort her baby. The lack of such clinics on which to focus protests means that here, pro-lifers frequently target politicians. Alan Shatter has spoken out about ‘obscene and insensitive’ posters targeting him in his constituency. Junior minister for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton said she has received ‘vicious, personal, horrific’ letters from pro-lifers, while Enda Kenny revealed he has also been subject to abuse from pro-life campaigners over the Government’s decision to legislate for the ‘X’ case.

The arrival of the Marie Stopes International Clinic in Belfast has given the pro-life movement something solid to attack. Marie Stopes, however, recognising the threat, has housed the Belfast clinic on the eighth floor of a nondescript, multi-purpose building, thereby making it impossible for protestors to identify which women entering the building may be seeking the clinic’s services. That hasn’t stopped daily protests by Precious Life, many of which are attended by Youth Defence members travelling from the South.

A spokesperson for Marie Stopes International says that ‘lone protestors’ have been common outside their centres for years. Now however, the organisation has noted an increase in the size and intensity of demonstrations.

“We absolutely recognise their right to protest in a peaceful way, but when the centre staff feel it’s stepping over the mark between peaceful protest and harassing women who are trying to come and access our services, then we do step in,” says the spokesperson. “We have really good relationships established with the local police in the Belfast area and our centre staff work with them on a case by case basis.”

So far, however, there have been no incidents at the Belfast centre.

While Youth Defence has a strong US following, there’s little direct evidence of dollars coming in here to support the movement as the debate re-ignites. Last year’s ‘Close the Door’ campaign was unquestionably an expensive undertaking. Asked where the money comes from, Youth Defence cites public donations.

Press reports last year which suggested the US-based Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) was pouring money into the Irish campaign have been denied. A spokesman for the PLAL repeated the denial when contacted this week, saying no funds have ever been given to any group. “The Pro-Life Action League does not plan any funding, and has never done so.”

Nonetheless, the majority of Youth Defence’s Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter followers are based in the US, while up until recently, its donation page was designated in dollars. The group is now gearing up for its most active year yet. “We expect to be busier than ever,” says the spokesperson.

Picture: Protestors at a pro-life event in Merrion Square, Dublin, last month. Picture: PA

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