In May, the traditionally Catholic country of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion. Now, in the United Kingdom, efforts are underway to make abortion laws more permissive and to force North Ireland - where the practice is highly restricted - to do the same.
At the center of both battles is Clare McCarthy, the Irish-born and now London-based Media Officer for Right to Life UK.
In an interview with Crux, she discusses the Irish referendum and current threats to human life in the U.K, which she describes as “the biggest threat to the unborn in a generation.”
Crux: Prior to joining Right To Life UK, you were working in the press office for the “Love Both” campaign during the final six weeks before the Irish referendum. For the pro-life community, what have the aftershocks been like and what’s the strategy going forward?
McCarthy: It was a devastating result. The hopeful thing is that for the first time there was a debate on abortion in the media and in the public narrative, where people were forced to think about it and to think about the real implications of what abortion is.
The negative is that even in spite of all that, that so many people voted in favor of abortion is devastating. The reason, in my opinion, that the figures are so high is that people who voted “yes” voted for what they saw as someone else’s decision. They were separating their own views, saying, “I’m pro-life, but I could never speak for someone else,” so there was a lot of moral relativism at play. I personally don’t think Irish people are in favor of abortion.
What this means for the Irish pro-life movement is that for so long it’s been in defense mode trying to prevent abortion, and now we’re regrouping and finding our new identity in a new Ireland. I actually think that a hopeful thing coming from the referendum is the number of people activated about this issue. We had so many people out canvassing. We had thirty percent of the country on our side, but those thirty percent are very strong pro-life advocates and voices. People canvassed on the ground during the final weeks of the referendum in ways I’ve never seen.
Recently, we had a pro-life gala dinner in September, it’s the national dinner for the cause, and it doubled in size from last year. You would not have thought we’d lost a referendum. There’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s far from over.
You’re now working in the U.K. where there is new legislation brewing that would have far-reaching effects, including Northern Ireland. What’s the situation here?
You could describe this as the greatest threat to the unborn since the introduction of the Abortion Act, which was passed in 1967 and took effect in 1968. It’s the biggest threat to the unborn in a generation.
We’re seeing a push for a change of abortion law that would remove almost all protections for the unborn and many of the legal safeguards for women undergoing a termination. Last week, a Ten Minute Rule bill was brought forward by Member of Parliament Diana Johnson that would expand abortion to Northern Ireland and also introducing one of the most extreme abortion regimes across England and Wales. The Ten Minute Rule Bill is a threat, but they rarely become law. The real threat would be if there’s an amendment attached to a government bill. We expect that abortion campaigners will be bringing forward amendments to government bills next year.
What’s the strategy to combat this?
Well, it’s an opportunity to get pro-life voices into the media. That in turn helps to activate a pro-life grassroots campaign. What we’ve done, and what we’re doing, is to activate our supporters around the country to contact their local members of parliament and to engage them in their own circles and give them information.
The difference between the referendum in Ireland and what’s going on here in the U.K. is that in Ireland everyone had a vote - it was a public discussion and a public referendum. In the U.K, all of that power sits with MPs in the House of Commons, so it’s really important to inform everyone what’s happening, why this is a threat, and letting them have the information so they can activate on the ground.
Even though everyone here doesn’t get a vote, what is public opinion like on the issue of abortion and this proposal?
The BBC’s pollster ComRes did polling in 2017 to gauge public opinion and only one percent of women are in favor of abortion on demand right through to birth. That’s what the abortion rights campaigners are pushing for, and the way they frame it is to call it decriminalization by saying women are being criminalized for having abortions.
The other areas where public opinion falls in our favor is things like introducing parental consent for abortions, cooling off periods, sex-selective abortion - 93 percent of women are against it - and 70 percent of women are in favor of lowering the time limits from 24 weeks to 20 weeks or below, so there are many things we have going for us, but this huge threat jeopardizes all of that.
What have you learned about coalition-building in Ireland and here on forming a broad, diverse group to combat such efforts?
I think the best example I’ve seen is a group called “Both Lives Matter” in Northern Ireland.
“Both Lives Matter” is secular, they’re not religious, but you see a combination of people who are Catholics and people who are Protestant, people who are Unionists and people who are Nationalists. In Northern Ireland, where it’s known for its conflict, this is one of the areas that people unite on.
It’s an interesting situation, where abortion is extremely restricted and there’s almost no abortion in Northern Ireland. There’s also almost no abortion for disability, and the attitudes are very different. In 2016, there were 52 children born who had Downs syndrome and in the same year only one mother traveled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales for a disability selective-abortion of a baby in the womb with Downs syndrome.
In Northern Ireland, there is a culture of embracing and supporting people with this disability, unlike England and Wales where 90 percent of babies in the womb diagnosed with Downs syndrome are aborted.
Just this week, a Bill in the House of Commons here in Parliament was being voted on that would impose abortion on Northern Ireland, which is a shocking thing to do. Firstly, because the law should be a decision for the people of Northern Ireland, and secondly, it would directly undermine the Good Friday Agreement which is cause for a lot of fear and concern.