Public Spaces and Private Decisions


With controversial Pro Life advertisements being placed around Dublin, Sean Finnan looks at the implications of such a campaign

Earlier this month, the pro-life Life Institute launched its much visible campaign. Hundreds of billboards have appeared in Dublin and around, in what the Life Institute are calling “the biggest pro-life advertising campaign ever.” Like much other debates in Ireland, the Life Institute have cowered away from discussing the issue without resorting to highly emotive imagery and messages. For those that haven’t seen the billboards, which is a difficulty in itself, it consists of the message “Abortion tears her life apart” beside an image of either a young mother or an ultrasound picture torn. “There’s always a better answer” appears underneath with “always” underlined.

Why now for the Life Institute’s campaign? Last April, a Private Members Bill led by Socialist Party TD Claire Daly was defeated by 111 votes to 20. The bill sought to implement a Supreme Court ruling from the 1992 X case which gave women the right to have an abortion if there was a real and substantial risk to her life. This included suicide but does not  go as far as including a risk to the mother’s health. Despite the Labour party being supportive of such a measure they voted against it as they believed it too important to be dealt with through a Private Member’s bill. Also, Minister of Health, Dr. Reilly opposed the bill on the grounds that an expert group’s report is needed before a decision can be made. This ensures that the bill should be debated before the end of the current government’s term.

This bill only gives the right to have an abortion in very limited circumstances, where the underlined ‘always’ of the billboard campaign is replaced with never. The bigger debate of abortion is still avoided. Last year according to figures from the UK’s Department of Health, 4,402 Irish women had an abortion in the United Kingdom. This figure does not give the reasons that Irish women travelled abroad for an abortion and nor does it need to. It is completely unsatisfactory that such a large number of women could not avail of a termination which may have been necessary to save their life, in their own country because there has not been a rational debate that takes them into account. They are stigmatised by a system that allows them to travel abroad for an abortion without criminalisation but not to have one in their own country. Unfortunately, there are no figures to show the number of induced miscarriages or home abortions that happen here because of the lack of services.

Nowhere on the billboards is any advice forthcoming by the Life Institute on what

a mother should do when faced with a crisis pregnancy. Testimonies on their website are one sided and harrowing. Last March, the Irish Times asked readers who had a termination to write in about their experiences with the promise of strict anonymity. Reader’s experiences ranged from regret to relief but there were two overwhelming common aspects to all their experiences; anger at having to travel abroad and the stigma attached to having had a termination. One reader stated, “Afterwards I felt quite angry about the legislation in Ireland, which on the one hand attempts to be pragmatic in allowing organisations such as the Irish Family Planning Association to do its work yet still forces women to travel abroad as if we were morally deficient people in a pure-white state.” Another stated, “I have not yet let go of the fury I feel about being forced into a corner by those who know little or nothing about how a young pregnant girl feels.” The message of these writers brave enough to share their experiences is that more emotional support, education and valuable information is needed. More importantly a choice should be given to them in their own country. The stagnation in properly debating this issue shows the Irish politician’s fear of a political backlash by associating itself not with abortion but the rights of women.

The billboards of torn pictures with unborn babies and weeping mothers are having the desired effect. Nothing is more stigmatised in Ireland than abortion. Suicide, homosexuality, mental health, etc. have all made progress in being discussed in an open manner. The Pro-Life campaign ensures the subject of abortion continues to be associated with such damaging connotations as murder, depression and family break up to name just a few; ensuring that those who have not had such an negative abortion experience remain silent.

Millions of Irish people view these billboards daily which offer nothing in terms of debate; they merely reinforce stigma. This will not stop women from seeking abortions in the Britain but it will add to the psychological and societal stigma already present. Ironically, this will impact further on mother and child as neither will receive the full scale services that they deserve. The Life Institute is keeping the battle on their home ground, shrouding personal decisions in societal shame.