Both camps in Ireland’s abortion debate suspect US meddling on the other side

Their country, their choice.
Their country, their choice.
Image: AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik
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Months after becoming the world’s first nation to legalize same-sex marriage via referendum, Ireland is now grappling with its controversial long-standing ban on abortion.

And, as was the case with the marriage vote, both sides are accusing the other of allowing US donors to influence the national debate.

In the same-sex marriage campaign, both sides denied taking foreign funding. But American interest groups have not shied away from openly lobbying in the fight over the 32-year-old clause in Ireland’s constitution that renders abortion illegal in all cases except to save a mother’s life.

Prior to the maternal health exemption vote in 2013, hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations poured in from American pro-life groups to like-minded allies in Ireland. And the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition gave out free postcards for Americans to distribute at St. Patrick’s Day celebrations calling on prime minister Enda Kenny to uphold a total ban.

Now that the same-sex marriage referendum has paved the way for a new conversation about abortion in Ireland, campaigns for and against the Eighth Amendment have begun anew. Although no specific vote has been scheduled, foreign interests already are mobilizing. For example, American and Canadian expatriates in Ireland are among the core members of the Abortion Rights Campaign, which organized a 10,000-strong march in Dublin in September against the Eighth Amendment.

Not all foreign support has been given openly.

In 2012, following the death of Savita Halappanavar, a Galway dentist whose death from a septic pregnancy mobilized calls for a maternal health exemption, thousands of Irish homes received automated calls (illegal in Ireland) in which an Irish accented voice read a pro-life message. A subsequent regulatory investigation traced the calls to a Colorado employee of the anti-abortion lobby group Personhood USA.

Meanwhile, pro-life campaigners have long voiced suspicion that abortion rights groups in Ireland are getting money from Atlantic Philanthropies, which is backed by Irish-American billionaire Chuck Feeney.

The number of Americans who claim some Irish ancestry is nearly 40 million, eight times the population of Ireland itself. Among religious conservatives, Ireland often is venerated as an example of a country that has successfully enshrined Christian values into law.

But the world’s interest in Ireland’s affairs is not always welcome. “It’s nearly as if Ireland is the last bastion within Europe, this is the final frontier, this has to be protected,” Kathleen Lynch, a Labour member of Ireland’s parliament, told Reuters in 2012, when the debate over whether to grant a maternal health exception was ramping up. “I’m not certain we should equally be used by others, to avenge something that they couldn’t withstand in their own countries.”