woman pregnancy bump

America is influencing Ireland's abortion referendum

Today, women and men across Ireland will take to the polls to decide whether to repeal the country’s constitutional ban on abortion, known as the Eighth Amendment. At present, Ireland has some of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world, allowing the termination of pregnancy only if the mother’s life is in immediate danger. Thousands of Irish women travel abroad every year seeking terminations. If the referendum passes, abortion will be allowed in cases where the mother's life is at risk, in the case of a fatal foetal abnormality, or up to 12 weeks without justification.

It’s a controversial topic, and one has stirred emotion and strong opinions from all sectors of society. Since the referendum was announced in January, more than 100,000 people have signed up to vote, bringing the total number of individuals registered to vote to 3.2 million, in a county with a voting age population of 3.7 million. On social media, people have been sharing their stories of how they are coming #HomeToVote - travelling from as far afield as Japan, Argentina and Australia to have their say. 

Understandably, the debate around the issue has been intense. Within Ireland, campaigns have been divisive and both sides have received criticism for being aggressive and emotionally manipulative, with graphic posters even being placed outside of maternity hospitals. However, there appears to be another element to these movements that has been overlooked and underestimated: the influence of foreign groups attempting to sway the vote. Of particular note appear to be those associated with the American Christian-right, commonly understood as a collective of Protestant, Catholic and Mormon groups who, while not agreeing on everything, are united by core beliefs such as the opposition to same-sex marriage and the belief that abortion is a sin. 

One area where these efforts to influence voter decisions can be seen is social media. Facebook and Google, keen not to allow a repeat of the Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential election, have both taken action to try and stop foreign actors having an influence in the referendum. Google blocked all political ads in Ireland on May 9. A day earlier, Facebook had blocked groups from outside the UK buying adverts relating to the issue.

However, this may have been too little too late. According to data from the Transparent Referendum Initiative, analysed by Open Democracy and released in April, “145 groups and individuals have bought more than 350 Facebook ads about the referendum” - while some of these were based in Ireland, others were foreign organisations or Irish groups with “significant international connections”. Among those that had already funded “Save the 8th” adverts was The Radiance Foundation, a Virginia-based pro-life Christian group, who had already come under fire in the US for adopting the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter campaign to criticise African-American women who choose to undergo terminations. Another came from Live Action, an anti-abortion group whose leader, Lila Rose, was among the speakers at the summit of the World Congress of Families, who are listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group.

Then, there are the Americans who have physically travelled to Ireland specifically to campaign on this issue. One such individual is Emily Faulkner, the 23-year-old co-founder of the Colorado-based anti-abortion campaign group Let Them Live who describes herself on her Twitter page as a “Future Obstetrician/Gynecologist”. Her and her fiancé Nathan Berning, along with a group of other young people, travelled to Ireland ahead of voting day after successfully crowdfunding $10,000 for their trip.

Having arrived on the pretence of visiting the country as tourists, the team from Let Them Live have posted a string of photos and messages to social media, showing them distributing posters and campaigning in the streets. Their most recent message, posted on Thursday evening, seemed optimistic: “And our last day of postering comes to an end. After seeing how many No posters there are all over the country, we are confident that Ireland will reaffirm life tomorrow. It has been exciting, exhausting and humbling to see the Irish people hard at work defending the unborn..and to help them do it. We are looking forward to positive results this Saturday!”

However, their campaign has won limited support, with Faulkner being egged in the street and many individuals taking to social media to vent their fury at the group becoming involved in Ireland’s issue and to compare the issue to America’s problem with gun violence. One user commented in the group's reviews: “What the heck were you doing interfering with other countries referendums anyway? Maybe you should re-direct your passion to fight to protect children in your own country through common sense gun-control, poverty etc.”

Another added: "Meddlers. Unwanted influencers. Throwing their dollars at Irish issues. They are Not pro life. Giving women bodily autonomy and choices in their reproductive health is the only pro life option and we will repeal the 8th regardless of yankee opinion. Sort yourselves out. Your schools are slaughterhouses at the moment. What are your pro life dollars doing for those babies?" For their part, Let Them Live say that: “We are so happy to be defending life here in Ireland, despite all of the negative press”.

Whichever way the vote goes, it would be impossible to lay all of the blame on foreign influences. It is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime vote that many have been waiting years for, and may well already hold strong opinions on. The last referendum on this topic - which introduced the Eighth Amendment - occurred in 1983, meaning that no one under the age of 54 has ever been able to effect any change such as this before. However, while the last pre-referendum opinion polls suggested that the Yes campaign is slightly ahead, they did also indicate that up to 20 per cent of voters are still undecided, leaving space for the vote to swing either way. Until Saturday evening, we will just have to hold our breath and wait.