One month ago, Aoife de Clár gave birth to a little girl — but that didn’t prevent her from getting back on the campaign trail a week later to volunteer for the “Save the 8th” campaign against an Irish referendum that would undo the country’s legal protections for unborn children.
In fact, as she nursed her newborn daughter and simultaneously monitored social media activity on the referendum, the looming deadline of May 25 — the date Irish voters will head to the polls to decide if they want to undo the amendment — weighed even more heavily.
While Ireland currently has some of the most robust protections for the unborn in the European Union, if repealed, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said his government would draft legislation to permit abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
As Irish voters head to the polls later this week, it is one of the most closely-watched challenges to the 8th amendment since it was put into place in 1983.
In 1992, a referendum was held which let groups distribute information about obtaining an abortion in a third country, and also guaranteed a woman’s right to travel to another country to get an abortion. A third proposal that would have declared the possibility of suicide is not a sufficient threat to justify an abortion was rejected by the voters.
For individuals such as de Clár, the 1992 referendum cemented the realities of the abortion issue anew. She’s a veteran of the cause, since at age 12 she attended a major pro-life rally in opposition to the proposed changes.
By age 15, she was spending her free time volunteering with Youth Defence, one of Ireland’s largest pro-life groups founded in response to the 1992 challenge.
De Clár told Crux that growing up, her parents were volunteers at local homeless shelters for men and women, respectively, and that it “exposed me to the injustices in the world early on in life.”
In the same way, de Clár and her husband Ray — whom she met through her volunteer work with Youth Defence — have made involvement with the Save the 8th campaign a family affair.
“Our children know why we’re doing this,” she said.
In the evenings, their oldest son, age 11, goes out with her husband and a group to put up new posters encouraging their fellow citizens to vote no against the referendum, which would legalize abortion during the first three months of pregnancy and in some cases, even further.
The posters, along with door-to-door campaigning, have become one of the most effective and relied-upon means of communicating their message — despite the fact that, according to de Clár, the opposition has removed more than 2,000 of them.
In the final days of the campaign, polling shows that the “Yes” campaign to overturn the referendum is still ahead, yet in the past two weeks the “No” campaign has managed to close the gap in a significant way — by some estimates by over 15 percentage points.
In an interview with Crux, campaign spokeswoman for Save the 8th, Niamh Ui Bhraiain said the focus in the final days is in making direct appeals to voters.
“We can see that as the facts and truth of what repealing the 8th means is reaching the Irish people they are agreeing that the 8th Amendment has a valuable and necessary role in our constitution,” said Ui Bhraiain.
“The Vote No Roadshow has been visiting every county in Ireland. This week they are on the final home stretch and have many incredible stories of people who have heard the facts and changed their mind from voting yes to now voting No,” she said.
“The Roadshow has been running out of leaflets every day, as so many people want to engage in conversations and have a real desire to know the truth,” Ui Bhraiain said.
Local Efforts are an Example
Ireland’s referendum comes at a time when the Catholic Church is rapidly losing influence in the once staunchly Catholic country, and just ahead of a much-anticipated visit by Pope Francis to the country in August.
Revelations about clerical sexual abuse have left public confidence in the Church at its lowest level in the history of Ireland, and in 2015, Ireland held a referendum on gay marriage in which 62 percent of the voters backed changing the constitution to allow the practice.
For those reasons alone, Church leaders are looking for lay leaders to lead the charge in opposition.
In an interview with Crux last month, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh said, “In this particular debate in Ireland at the moment within the Catholic Church, we are encouraging that debate to be led by our lay faithful.”
“We are fully involved, but our technique is to encourage our lay faithful to be the voices, because they are the people – particularly women, who have very strong feelings on this particular matter,” said Martin.
While the country’s bishops have actively been issuing pastoral letters, most efforts have been led by individuals such as de Clár and Ui Bhraiain being “lay missionaries,” as termed by Martin.
According to Delia Bryan, a U.S. pro-life activist from Michigan who’s traveled to Ireland on numerous occasions to learn from their efforts, it’s because the Irish are focused so closely on local, lay activism that they’ve been able to fight off past efforts to undo the country’s abortion restrictions.
Bryan, who volunteered with Youth Defence, points to the fact that the group was founded by seven young adults who’ve modeled a commitment to both education and activism. She believes not only have the Irish benefited from that example, but her fellow U.S. activists could as well.
“I think that although Ireland is a small country, and it’s a little easier to talk to each and every household through canvassing, America has a lot to learn. I think it’s easy to feel like you’re too busy to help with the cause, or that America is too big to reach everyone, but it’s not,” Bryan told Crux.
“If we had every single pro-life person in America working to abolish abortion here, taking up any role no matter how large or small, it would have been abolished decades ago,” she added.
A willingness to talk to every single person — whether it be door to door or by actively engaging social media, as has been the method preferred by de Clár as she recovers from giving birth — is a hallmark of the Irish cause.
A Safe Place to be Pregnant
As both sides make their closing arguments, one of the final messages that the “No” side is driving home is that Ireland is one of the safest places in the world to have a child and voters should think twice before enacting laws that might change that.
In an interview with Crux, Eoghan de Faoite, a medical advisor to the Save the 8th campaign, cited data from the World Health Organization (WHO) that places Ireland among the countries of the world with the lowest maternal mortality rates, and he noted this is precisely because of the country’s restrictions against abortion.
“Ireland is a safe place for women to be pregnant,” de Faoite stressed. “This referendum would change that.”
De Faoite went on to describe the proposed changes to the Irish Constitution as “a radical change,” and said that in his experience of going door-to-door and talking to voters, once they’re made aware of that reality, they change their mind.
De Clár offered a similar account, noting that most people she encounters who support the proposed changes cite the hard cases where women have been raped, when the life of the mother is at stake, or when children might be born with disabilities.
She said her immediate response is to agree that Ireland needs to do more to protect women and children, but she tries to show that the referendum is not the solution.
“There’s always going to be the hard cases, but this referendum isn’t about the hard cases,” she tells them. “Instead, this referendum will remove every right of the unborn child.”
“When people are aware of that reality, they begin to change their mind,” de Faoite said.
While clearly aware that they are underdogs in this battle, both de Faoite and de Clár say their confidence is rising.
“All we have are our feet and our voices,” said de Clár. “And we have to use them.”
“Our lives have been put on hold until this campaign is over,” she added. “We only get one chance at this, and I don’t want to look back and say we could have done more.”