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After Ireland Legalized Abortion, the Pro-Life Movement Split Strategies

Three years after repeal, evangelical leaders navigate pandemic politics to advocate for a more holistic approach rather than another culture war battle.
After Ireland Legalized Abortion, the Pro-Life Movement Split Strategies
Image: Karen Huber

On the first cold autumn evening in Dublin’s City Centre, more than 200 people gathered for a pro-life rally in front of Leinster House, the home of Ireland’s parliament, Dáil Éireann.

In the three years since a national referendum legalized abortion in the country, Christian engagement around the issue has shifted and divided, particularly in the midst of clashing responses to COVID-19.

Now, the country’s abortion law is being reviewed by the Irish government.

Megan Ní Scealláin, a leader with the nondenominational Life Institute, which sponsored last week’s Rethink Abortion rally, said it sent a “message to the Dáil to say that this review must examine the actual facts of the abortion regime. We don’t want a whitewash of reality, and the Irish people deserve an honest appraisal.”

The group is calling for a full assessment of the number of abortions which have taken place since the 2018 law: 13,243, according to official government reports. A mandatory three-year review of Ireland’s abortion laws is set to begin before the end of the year, with some politicians and abortion rights groups advocating for extended access, including the removal of the current three-day waiting limit.

Holding electronic candles and pro-life signs highlighting current abortion rates, demonstrators heard from Christian leaders, politicians, workers at local crisis pregnancy centers, and even the muffled pulse of a heartbeat in utero, through the help of a fetal monitor and microphone.

“It really does my heart good to see everyone out there on this cold night,” Ní Scealláin told the crowd. “We’re not for turning, we’re not for giving in, and we’ll always stand for life!”

Ireland’s vote to legalize abortion is seen as part of a larger cultural shift taking place in the historically Catholic country. After same-sex marriage was legalized through a national referendum in 2015, the hashtag #Repealthe8th began to target the constitutional amendment that essentially outlawed abortion.

It had been in place since the 1980s, and over the years, some 170,000 Irish women have traveled abroad to receive abortions. The repeal campaign was a success, passing with 64 percent turnout and 66 percent of the vote. In December 2018, new legislation regulating abortion up to 12 weeks (after 12 weeks in some specific circumstances, including a threat to the mother’s life) was drafted into law.

Since the repeal, the Christian pro-life movement in Ireland has gone different ways in its approach.

“There’s a group of people who were very activated at the time, and now have basically just said, ‘Well, we lost. Move on,’” said Nick Park, executive director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland. “There’s two other groups that have reacted quite differently, and that is to say, ‘Why did we lose the referendum, and what fundamental changes need to be made?’”

For some, it’s ignited a culture war mentality and a desire to turn back liberal changes being made in Irish society. Park sees himself as part of another group, who have grown more committed to modeling a holistic pro-life ethic.

“Maybe the reason we lost the referendum was because people didn’t believe us when we said we were pro-life, because we’ve not been,” said Park, who also pastors Solid Rock Church of God in Drogheda. “The church in general has not been pro-life in other areas, and that needs addressed.”

Crisis pregnancy centers have seen a steady increase not only in women reaching out for support, but in volunteers offering their services.

“Even before the referendum, I always said, ‘What can I do?’ After the referendum, it really gave me the nudge to say, I want better for women. I want more for women in our country,” said Corrine Claffey Concannon, who directs a new office of the crisis pregnancy nonprofit Gianna Care, which opened last year in County Offaly. “To me, that’s something amazing that came from repeal: that people actually just got up and said, ‘How can we help?’”

The pandemic, though, has accelerated the needs of the vulnerable while deepening philosophical divides among pro-life Christians. Ireland is now facing its fifth wave of COVID-19 after only recently emerging one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in Europe.

Meanwhile, the coalition government, led by Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin, struggles to solve a severe housing shortage, causing house prices to increase by 10 percent in the previous year. Concannon said Gianna has seen more women in crisis “for so many reasons” during the pandemic and a “gaping hole” in government support options.

At the same time, current divisions in the evangelical church over pandemic policies make a collaboration toward a coherent pro-life strategy difficult.

A disillusionment toward the media in the wake of its coverage of #Repealthe8th, which many Christians— including Park, the Life Institute, and Gianna Care—felt was biased and unfair, has fostered mistrust and anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine sentiment. Meanwhile, new reader-funded platforms like Gript have entered the media space offering alternative views that “challenge the stale consensus.”

“I just don’t believe the church is in a place right now where we can move together on [pro-life issues] effectively because we’re so divided ourselves,” said Park.

The human rights-infused evangelical push to protect the vulnerable—the idea that the same pro-life values that lead someone to oppose abortion would encourage them to reduce the risk of COVID-19—stand in contrast to increasingly politicized antiabortion stances of Catholics and Protestants on the right.

“If we cannot address all [pro-life] issues in a reasoned way, then you leave the stage clear for the extremists and that benefits nobody,” he said, referencing new right-wing and “very Trumpian” groups which have garnered more of a following since 2018.

Still, Evangelical Alliance Ireland and new organizations like The Minimise Project and Zoe Community think there’s room to pursue apolitical pro-life advocacy among both Christians and non-believers. The Minimise Project facilitates “constructive dialogue” from a secular perspective, while Zoe Community approaches the issue as Christians, focusing on younger generations.

“For good reason, there’s this conception that a church is where you go to be criticized. But on a real deep level, I hope that in the future a woman in crisis pregnancy will look at a Christian and say, ‘I know that I am not going to be criticized when I talk to this person,” said Katy Edgmon, the director of Zoe Community, which opened in the wake of the new law and trains volunteers to connect with women in crisis. “That’s what I want to see.”

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