DUBLIN (Reuters) - Patricia Casey’s views on abortion were formed at the age of 12 when she came across an image of what looked to her like a torn-apart baby - an aborted foetus.
Now, at 25 a veteran anti-abortion campaigner in the semi-autonomous UK province of Northern Ireland, she’s committed to a fight to ensure the abortion law in neighbouring Ireland remains one of the world’s strictest, preventing terminations in nearly all circumstances.
“It is a battle, definitely it’s a battle,” she said. “You’ve got to go out there fighting.”
The issue pitches Ireland’s Catholic conservatives against a younger secular generation at a time when the church’s grip on society is weakening and the European Union, of which Ireland is a member, is demanding a review of its laws.
But the active involvement of not just the Catholic church but also the international anti-abortion movement, which often cites Ireland as the jewel in its crown, means the country could become a battleground for a global fight.
“It’s nearly as if Ireland is the last bastion within Europe, this is the final frontier, this has to be protected,” said Kathleen Lynch, the Irish republic’s junior minister for disability, equality and mental health.
“I‘m not certain we should equally be used by others, to avenge something that they couldn’t withstand in their own countries.”
Six successive Irish governments have shied away from re-examining Ireland’s ban on abortion, which has created a mini-industry out of flying Irish women to other parts of the world, especially Britain, to terminate their pregnancies.
The current coalition government’s hand is about to be forced by the recommendations of an expert panel formed to respond to the EU, which is due to be given to the Health Minister any day.
Casey was among around 100 people, many of them teenagers, who attended Dublin’s first anti-abortion “boot camp” on a Saturday in September, featuring speakers from overseas including veteran American campaigner Scott Klusendorf.
After eight hours of seminars on how to explain, persuade and, if necessary, shock people into action on the issue, the youngsters took their newly acquired marketing skills outside to form a “life chain” at a busy thoroughfare, holding up graphic images of aborted foetuses.
“They’re buzzing. They can’t wait to go out onto the streets,” said Casey. Abortion is extremely restricted in her native Northern Ireland, and if Ireland changes its laws, the pressure on the province to follow suit will be enormous.
A week later more than 1,000 people responded with a “March for Choice” outside government offices, waving placards that read “Get your rosaries off my ovaries” and chanting “Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate”.
Sinead Redmond, 27, a software engineer from Kildare, said she started the group on Facebook after seeing an advertisement in a June campaign that argued “abortion tears her life apart”.
“I was so angry,” she said. “It was so invasive and so in your face and so judgmental.”
Ireland’s abortion stance is enshrined in a 1983 constitutional amendment that intended to ban abortion in all circumstances. In 1992, when challenged in the “X-case” involving a 14-year-old rape victim, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was permitted when the woman’s life was at risk, including from suicide.
The total ban effectively remained in place, however, after successive governments refused to make clear the circumstances under which a threat would make an abortion legal. After several challenges, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2010 that Ireland must clarify its position.
The expert panel’s recommendations are expected to outline how to do that.
Four out of five Irish voters today would support a change in the law to permit abortion in cases where a mother’s life is at risk, according to a poll for the Sunday Times on September 16.
Nothing seems out of the ordinary at a medical waiting room south of Manchester, England, littered with gossip magazines and posters alerting women to issues like cervical cancer, but then a patient is called for treatment by number, not name, to protect her identity.
A quarter of clients at this abortion clinic have travelled from Ireland, and anonymity is all-important for Irish women, given the country’s small close-knit communities.
This is just one of the services that caters to Irish women, including free taxis from the airport. Last year an average of just over 11 women travelled every day from Ireland to England and Wales for an abortion, UK government statistics show.
“Just imagine having to leave home at 2 or 3 a.m., drive to Dublin, to be hungry, to be nervous, to be feeling sick ... to have to get on a plane - she could have travel sickness or be nervous of flying - to have to come into a strange country,” said Aaron Flaherty, who manages the clinic.
“It’s those women that are suffering.”
The so-called “British solution” has allowed Irish politicians to sweep the issue under the carpet because women have not had to resort to backstreet abortions, experts say.
“It is a failure of sovereignty to export the problem in this way,” said Ruth Fletcher, senior lecturer in law at Keele University.
It is one of many social issues that critics say Ireland has addressed at a snail’s pace over the years. It only legalised divorce in 1997, and homosexuality was decriminalised five years earlier and only after the European Court protested in 1988.
“We’ve been working through these legacy issues; it seems like the abortion issue is the last stance of conservative Ireland, and from where I‘m sitting they’re throwing everything at it,” said Niall Behan, chief executive of the Irish Family Planning Association, an Irish sexual health charity.
Klusendorf, who has spent the past 20 years on the road training campaigners across North America as president and founder of the Life Training Institute, anticipates spending a lot more time in the UK and Ireland over the next decade.
“We have to equip pro-lifers, especially in countries where the consensus that was forged around religion is starting to erode, to make the case in a way that a secularised culture cannot dismiss. That is why I‘m here,” he said.
The campaign has become more urgent after the EU court decision and formation of the panel, said Eoghan de Faoite, a 28-year-old medical doctor and volunteer for Irish anti-abortion group Youth Defence.
Faoite was among those who spoke at the Viva la Vida bootcamp, which was put together in just three weeks on Facebook with support from Youth Defence’s 60,000 Facebook Friends.
“We expect to step it up a gear,” he said, wearing a small silver pin of a baby’s feet in the lapel of his grey suit. “Since January we’ve been at a really high intensity level of campaigning, and we’ve seen a lot of good results from that.”
The politics around the issue are potentially explosive.
Fine Gael, the senior partner in Ireland’s ruling coalition, will be reneging on pre-election promises if it introduces any guidelines during its tenure, and may try to delay any action. If it does so, however, it will go against not only the court, but also its junior partner Labour, threatening to splinter an already strained alliance.
“The court wants clarity, and the two parties have directly opposing policies,” said Ronan McCrea, a barrister and lecturer in law at University College London.
“Irish politics and society love these fuzzy compromises, where people believe mutually inconsistent things. But the court wants clarity, and if there is one thing Irish people are bad at, it’s clarity.”
Some fear politicians may continue to delay action, though the health department’s Lynch maintained there was no way to get around the European court’s ruling.
“The stars are definitely aligned for some serious change,” said Jon O‘Brien, head of Washington-based Catholics for Choice, but added: “Irish politicians have been cowed down in the past. It could go either way.”
Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Will Waterman