[Editor’s Note: Niamh Uí Bhriain is the founder of Youth Defence, one of the most important Irish pro-life groups, and was the chair of the #savethe8th campaign to protect the Irish Constitution’s pro-life 8th Amendment in a national referendum held on May 25. The pro-life cause suffered a stinging defeat when 2 out of 3 Irish voters chose to repeal the amendment, and allow legal abortion in Ireland. Uí Bhriain spoke to Charles Camosy about the aftermath of the referendum, and the future of the pro-life movement in Ireland.]
Camosy: For many of us cheering you on from afar, the pain of the Irish overwhelmingly repealing a constitutional amendment protecting the fundamental human rights of a whole class of vulnerable people is still acute. How are you feeling? How is the Irish pro-life movement handling things?
Uí Bhriain: The referendum result was a wound to the soul, perhaps the darkest day in Ireland’s history. An unspeakable cruelty will now be inflicted on the most innocent of all our people, on our preborn children. Worst of all, two thirds of the Irish people are now complicit in this cruelty. It bears their stamp: every abortion is one they voted for, even though many of those votes were won by a relentless campaign of misinformation and deceit.
We have lost something precious and beautiful and, to be honest, we are all broken-hearted. It feels like an unexpected and traumatic death, because that’s what it was, the death of decency and kindness and compassion in a culture that had stood strong for so long against the abortion industry. But we will fight on, because no referendum, no popular vote can ever make abortion right. We must also keep the path lit so that, together with the next generation, we can rebuild the culture.
Thousands of pro-life activists dedicated two years and more of their lives to fighting the good fight. This was a tremendous grassroots effort, attracting support from every section of society, and they did everything within their power to protect mothers and babies. The NO campaign fought harder and smarter, but they were opposed not only by the political establishment and NGOs in receipt of millions of foreign funding, but by the entire mainstream media establishment. However, their conscience is clear, and they should hold their heads up high and take pride in their heroic efforts. That surge of pro-life volunteers will bring crucial insight and ideas to the movement as we reflect, plan, pray, and rebuild the culture.
This country has lost something beautiful and precious; but, we did not lose on May 25, the preborn child did. They lost their right to life because so many voters were cowed and bullied and deceived – but we will always be their voice. We must speak up to protect mothers and babies, because if we do not speak for them no one will. Venerable Fulton Sheen said “Moral principles do not depend on a majority vote. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong. Right is right, even if nobody is right.”
Lots of people have speculated about not only the reasons for the result itself, but also its overwhelming margin, which seems to have surprised people on all sides of the issue. As someone who was as close to the situation as anyone, what’s your theory of the case? What do you think happened?
Your question requires a detailed answer. As the date of the abortion referendum drew near, successive opinion polls began to show that support for the Yes vote was slipping. In fact, abortion campaigners revealed that their own polls had led them to believe that the final result would be very tight, and they were hoping for a very slim victory at best – perhaps 52 percent to 48 percent.
Yet 66 percent of people eventually voted to repeal the 8th Amendment and remove all constitutional protection. The size of the vote took absolutely everybody by surprise – including the media, political commentators and their allies in the Yes campaign. Pollsters from every market research company have said privately that they did not expect this result.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that only a third of Irish people consider themselves to be ‘pro-choice’, and this was mirrored in our experience at the doors. The exit polls (which sought responses from a total of 7,000 voters exiting voting centers) provide some insight into how voters came to this decision.
Firstly, the media had convinced people of the lie that the 8th amendment was killing women. Voters said that they had changed their minds on the abortion issue, not during the campaign, but five years previously – precisely the time when they were repeatedly told by the media that Savita Halappanavar died because of the 8th Amendment, despite three independent inquiries finding that she died of sepsis which went untreated because of medical negligence.
[Halappanavar died in 2012 during a days-long miscarriage and had at one point requested an abortion. The medical team failed to diagnosis the sepsis until later into the miscarriage. The case was a major talking point during the referendum campaign. – Editor]
To understand the effect of the near-total media bias, it’s important to realize that media diversity is almost non-existent in Ireland, with news and opinion coverage on the issue across the national print, TV and radio outlets being almost universally supportive of a liberal abortion regime. However, the media would not have ordinarily shifted the majority of middle-ground voters towards repealing the 8th without the fake-news storm they built around the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.
The exit polls showed that many people voted against the 8th because they had been fed an endless claim that it was killing or seriously harming women – a claim that the Health Minister and an Taoiseach (the term used for the Irish Prime Minister – editor) repeated throughout the campaign.
The lie that Savita was killed by the 8th Amendment was repeated so often that it became deeply embedded in the public narrative, more deeply, perhaps, than we had realized, and this caused a shift in the mindset of middle Ireland.
A search of the website of RTÉ (the nation’s public broadcaster and largest news provider) for example, using the terms ‘Savita, abortion’ yields an astonishing 19,800 results since 2013. In contrast, a search using the terms ‘Savita, sepsis’ yields only 66 results, while only 114 results are found when searching for the terms ‘Savita, medical misadventure’ – even though three independent inquiries found that medical misadventure after a delayed diagnosis of sepsis caused her death.
Pro-life groups and representatives worked hard to explain the real facts – that Savita had died from sepsis – but the media’s insistence that she had died because of the 8th was overwhelming. People had decided the 8th Amendment was responsible for her death, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and they then voted to remove the 8th despite the consequences.
Compounding this misinformation were the misleading statements made by Dr. Peter Boylan [the chairman of Ireland’s Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists] and others during the campaign. The media never challenged them on the many lies that were told, even when Dr. Boylan, for example, claimed that another woman, Mrs. Sheila Hodges had lost her life because of the 8th, despite the fact that Mrs. Hodges tragically lost her life to cancer which went untreated before the 8th Amendment even became law.
When Boylan was subsequently asked to stand aside from his role in the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists by a large group of obstetricians who felt his role was compromised by his campaigning, the media did their best to bury that story.
Women were told – repeatedly – that they would be denied treatment for cancer and other conditions in pregnancy under the 8th, even though that was not the case. Pro-abortion doctors were given endless airtime to spread fear and misinformation, while pro-life doctors received far less time and were constantly challenged, even when they pointed to rock-solid facts such as Ireland’s very low maternal mortality rates. Emotion, as we have so often seen, trumps facts and logic every time.
In the days before the vote, with support for repeal slipping, the media ratcheted up the claim that the 8th put women’s lives in danger and therefore had to be repealed. Posters with Savita’s image were erected around the country and the media sought out emotional statements from Savita’s family calling for a Yes vote. It became impossible for the truth to be heard.
Perhaps the greatest irony in this tragic result is that official statistics show that Ireland, without abortion, was one of the safest places in the world to be pregnant, yet abortion has been legalized here because media managed to convince the people of a lie around the death of a pregnant woman from sepsis.
Secondly, voters were also persuaded by the media’s focus on the ‘hard cases’ and they were repeatedly told that there was “no other way” to help women in the most difficult circumstances – such as in pregnancy after rape, or when the baby had a life-limiting condition (always referred to as a ‘fatal abnormality’ by the media). Many people voted against the 8th on that basis and closed their eyes to the inevitable consequences of what would follow.
RTÉ’s exit poll shows that only half of voters support the abortion-on-demand provision of the Government’s bill even up to 12 weeks– and that support may be over-stated because the poll over-estimated the Yes vote by several percentage points. Many voters did not favor the ‘pro-choice’ position, but their vote will be used to that end. On their conscience be it.
There can be only one conclusion, however, as to why voters lied to pollsters and to canvassers about their intentions: They know in their hearts that abortion is wrong.
What most people, including Yes campaigners, saw as a soft No was actually a reluctant Yes. It was interesting, to see many of those voters who had been persuaded to vote Yes subsequently express disgust and dismay at the cheering, gloating mob of abortion supporters in Dublin Castle, who banged drums, danced in conga lines, and pumped their fists in the air as they exulted in legalizing abortion.
The fact that the support was reluctant, and the eventual realization of what legalized abortion always brings, will be part of the long build towards re-establishing a culture of life, where both mother and baby will be protected again.
Women will now suffer under an abortion regime which sees not just babies as disposable, but which tells them that they are on their own when they need help and support. That, too, is on the conscience of all those who voted Yes and on all those who lied to ensure that abortion be legalized.
Finally, there has been an undeniable culture shift amongst some voters, and there are now also greater numbers of people (still a minority of the electorate but more than previously existed) who think abortion should be legal for any reason at all. This culture shift towards a more extreme and callous position was boosted in part by anger at the Church but also by other factors and was expressed in a swing in favor of legalized abortion, particularly amongst younger voters and female voters.
To convince many middle-ground voters, abortion campaigners also built a narrative around the women of Ireland living as second-class citizens, oppressed and unfairly treated by society. In the final ten days, the scandals around cervical cancer where the State failed women, and two shocking murders of women, may have led to a swell of public anger misdirected at the 8th Amendment. The tragic irony is that the attitudes and actions of those who have disregarded and harmed women are only served by the availability of abortion, but that was lost on voters. Abortion does not free women from oppression, but it serves exploitative, sleazy men like Harvey Weinstein and others all too well. Again, that will become clear in the days and years ahead.
Culture swings and shifts happen both ways however, and those of us who love and protect every baby and every mother have a natural advantage in rebuilding the culture of life: we will have not aborted the future generations who will swing back the pendulum.
I’ve heard that a population expert speculated that the 8th Amendment during its time saved the lives of somewhere around 250,000 Irish children. Does this sound right to you? How can it be that so many of the very people who had their lives saved by the 8th voted to repeal it?
Yes, a comparison of the abortion rate in Britain to that in Ireland since the 8th amendment was inserted into the Constitution shows that approximately 250,000 babies were saved from abortion because abortion was not freely available in Ireland. Yet more than 80 percent of 18-25-year-olds voted Yes.
Young people tend to become more conservative in voting as they get older, but the referendum results should prompt the Churches and others to look at the reality of what is happening in schools and third level and in the culture.
In some ways, it is astonishing that Ireland held out against all of the overwhelming cultural pressures of the developed West to legalize abortion as long as it did. A remarkable human rights achievement that, regardless of what happened in 2018, will stand forever as a prime example of refusing to choose between protecting women and protecting prenatal children. I understand that the organization you founded, Youth Defence, was at the forefront of protecting the 8th and supporting mothers for several decades. How were you able to resist for so long?
It’s true that Ireland held out for 50 years after many other European countries capitulated to the abortion industry, and it’s also true that when the line is held for that long sometimes the fall is more devastating than an incremental loss.
But in that time Ireland showed that abortion is not needed to care for mothers and babies. The number of women travelling to Britain for abortion fell by 50 percent in the past 15 years, and Ireland became a center for excellence in maternal healthcare. It is shameful that these facts were so persistently denied and ignored by a mainstream media united in its mission to legalize abortion in Ireland.
Our focus for almost three decades was on ensuring that people understood that abortion kills babies and hurts women, and that we must instead always work to love and protect them both. Our campaigns and initiatives reached people in the public square, on campus, on social media and more. The message was heard, and opinion polls showed that most Irish people remained strongly opposed to abortion on demand. Even with millions from George Soros and others funding abortion campaigners we still held the line.
Without the misinformation around the death of Savita Halappanavar, the 8th would most likely still be part of our constitution, but the power of the media in getting people to believe the lie that the 8th had caused her death and was putting women in danger shattered support in constitutional protection for preborn babies.
What should we be looking for next? Now that the amendment is gone, what kind of legislation do you think might pass? If it is too extreme, might there be a backlash? What about Northern Ireland–can they hold out against the pressure to change their pro-life laws?
Northern Ireland is now under ferocious attack, but more politicians are openly pro-life and willing to defend the right to life in that jurisdiction.
In the South, the government has already laid out its legislation and it is appalling: abortion for any reason in the first 12 weeks of the baby’s life, and for many reasons after that. Babies with severe disabilities are targeted for late-term abortion, and Simon Harris is trying to force doctors to refer for abortion, denying the right to conscientious objection.
We will fight on, especially in the short term to expose the reality of what the legislation proposes, and to seek amendments. Women in crisis need support and assistance. An alternative media must be established. The liberal-left’s stranglehold on Irish politics needs to be challenged.
There is a lot of work to be done.