The Abortion Referendum: The Dangerously Authoritarian Impulse of many ‘No’ Vote Advocates

Repeal the 8th posters

An image taken from a video of a man ripping down pro repeal posters in Limerick City. 

Whatever your voting choice on Friday be careful what you read as the democratic process is itself at stake.

 In the run-up to Friday’s referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment and remove protection of ‘the unborn’ from the Irish constitution there has been a determined effort to distort the democratic process from some on the NO side. There have been many misleading claims on posters, in online adverts and by advocates in the mainstream media.

The NO side has claimed legislation that will be introduced if the repeal is successful will be more liberal than the UK. The UK allows up to 24 weeks to terminate a pregnancy whereas the proposed system here will be up to 12 weeks. We’ve all seen the posters – with a foetus so developed they are practically talking – that state “If killing a baby at six months bothers you then vote no”. The proposed legislation will only allow for abortion up to six months under exceptional circumstances, which involve there beinga risk to the life of, or serious harm to the health of, the pregnant woman”. Current legislation already allows for the ‘risk to the life’ exception.

Another poster claims that “in England 1 in 5 babies are aborted”. Apart from the repeated substitution of ‘baby’ for foetus the figure excludes miscarriages. The ratio of 1 in 5 is drawn from UK government statistics on pregnancies and abortions. However, the number of pregnancies fails to include pregnancies that end in miscarriage (and still-births). The inclusion of miscarriages  would significantly widen the ratio. Now while an unsophisticated exploration of statistics is commonplace in the media I can’t but help feel that the misrepresentation was again deliberate.

Then there is the recurring statement about how women who’ve had an abortion are prone to depression and six times more likely to commit suicide. Pro-life Ireland offer this tid-bit with zero proof. Anti-abortion campaigners have even dubbed it post-abortion syndrome (PAS). The pseudo-medical label is an obvious attempt to give the myth the appearance of legitimacy. However, it is not supported by the existing evidence in the scientific literature and has been dismissed by many professional bodies, such as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Similarly, dubious claims about the cancer and fertility risks from abortion have been dismissed by the World Health Organisation.

Still it might not be too much of a surprise, in a country with a long history of Catholic oversight which cast abortions as murder, for some Irish women who had abortions to feel shame and guilt. But would that not be a case of cultural resonance rather than abortion itself and therefore indicate that it is the culture that needs to change?

A further example of outright lying hails from the Save the Eighth billboard advertising which featured an abortion nurse describing the horrors of what he had witnessed. As it turned out the Noel on the billboard was a fake nurse whose eye-witness testimony was complete invention.

More disturbing attempts to mislead voters can be found in anti-abortion advocacy masquerading as unbiased information – a booklet that was delivered to 200,000 households has the appearance of an official Government publication. Yet when you look to the small print on the second last page you find the publication’s sponsors include Family and Life, Life Institute, www.save8.ie, www.protectthe8th.ie, Coalition Against Abortion on Demand.

A deliberately misleading internet campaign has been using ads on YouTube and Facebook to attract undecided voters. Again, the campaign masks itself as unbiased and the ads link to a website called Undecided8, which states “Yes or No? Unsure? Here are some unbiased facts to consider before you vote”. Of course, the supposed ‘facts’ are completely biased. A Texas based Catholic Marketing and Tech Firm named Fuzati may be behind this particular campaign – if true then this is just one more sign among many of foreign interference for the No side in the Irish referendum.  The main goal of this internet operation is possibly to identify and  re-target undecided voters with messages specifically suited for their particular psychometric make-up constructed from their online activity. Considering the case of Cambridge Analytica and its interference in Brexit and USA presidential election this would not be a surprise.

This isn’t the only internet attempt to disrupt the flow of democratic rights to be properly informed: The In Her Shoes – the pro-repeal Facebook page where women tell their abortion stories – was deliberately sabotaged in an online attack. There appears also to be the presence of bots and troll accounts such as Feminists for the 8th, Artists for the 8th, Teachers for the 8th, whose purpose appears to be to provoke repealers so that they can screenshot annoyed responses and then disseminate them online. Without context the screenshots are an attempt to frame the repeal side as aggressive. The handles are also being used to disseminate short video clips of pro-repeal speakers that are again purposely edited out of context.

Perhaps most serious of all is Save the 8th Campaign’s hiring of Thomas Borwick, a canvassing app developer for Cambridge Analytica and chief technology officer for Brexit Vote Leave Campaign. John McGuirk of Save the 8th displays further disdain for transparency by his claim that Borwick was hired only to create a website and track its use – which is menial stuff for a big fish in the shady business of internet canvassing who has links to the internet firm that compromised the Brexit referendum.

Ireland’s Pro Life Campaign has also hired uCampaign which developed apps for the Trump, the NRA, and also Vote Leave – all campaigners with dubious track records for informing the public.

Due to the secrecy and anonymity of the internet the true extent of the interference is hard to establish but even with Facebook’s announcement of a ban on foreign-funded ads relating to the referendum hundreds of Facebook ads are continuing to appear. A crowdsourced project aimed at publishing all the paid-for online ads for the referendum has identified 900 ads. 28 of the ads  pretended to be neutral while clearly favouring one side. Much of this activity indicates spending by overseas organisations, untraceable advertising, and high spending to get hundreds of thousands to see high quality video ads.

No doubt some poster defacers and misinformers are bound to exist among the large contingent of the Yes side and we of course view such behaviour as disgraceful. But there has clearly been a systematic pattern of deceit on the ‘Pro-life’ side. This general disrespect for the truth is part of the wider shift to authoritarianism and disinformation in the conservative movement. One need only look at the US electorate to see the willingness of anti-abortion supporters to deface democracy.

There is something so severely disturbing about a large section of the US electorate who are unwavering in their support for a misogynistic, racist, lying, morally bankrupt, and it increasingly seems, deeply corrupt president. Christian Evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Trump. This is despite a life of ‘sin’ having paid off a porn star to keep quite about his infidelity and a string of other accusations of sexual misconduct. But then again the evangelicals supported Roy Moore – 2017 Republican nominee for Senate special election in Alabama – whose past shows an unhealthy obsession with high school girls and some disturbing allegations of unwanted advances and sexual assault.

The reason for this contradictory commitment is that these candidates support issues close to their heart such as being anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage. The argument often made in their defence is that God can do good work through bad people. So, it is acceptable to offload those bad people, and their policies that go way beyond narrow issues of abortion and marriage, onto the rest of the population.

Backing a candidate such as Trump, who shows obvious disdain for transparency, accountability, and the truth, displays an abhorrence for the democratic process. Trump is an inveterate liar, who pushed the ‘birther’ conspiracy against Obama, whose campaign deliberately promoted misinformation against Hillary and had the shady support of Cambridge Analytica and Russian online interference. His own love for authoritarianism allows him to repeatedly praise dictators including China’s Xi Jinping being made president for life.

This authoritarian impulse of anti-abortion evangelicals isn’t really that surprising when after all they are driven by a desire to police the lives of others – think gay marriage. Being anti-abortion is in many ways a desire to exercise control over women’s bodies. Although I know that many likely see the latter as being about saving souls rather than restricting women. In that sense, though, there is also a powerful impulse to do ‘god’s work’, which itself can easily lead onto the path of authoritarianism, as opposed to democracy. Just look at the history of religious orders whose institutions have rarely been one for incorporating democratic practices.

Most anti-abortion supporters in Ireland have a different background to US Christian Evangelicalism and of course there are many who respect Irish democracy. But in terms of advocacy, stronger links to the evangelical position on abortion are in all likelihood being forged and there appears to be many who feel the truth is fair game.

Some strange similarities to Trump’s more radical base are already starting emerge too. There has even been the emergence of voter registration conspiracy theories that sound awfully familiar – Trump made similar claims over the popular vote. The espousal of Trumpian style paranoia by some sections – including an Independent Councillor – links repeal to being the route to normalising sex slavery, that “Hitler would be very happy”, and that euthanasia would follow. With repeal Ireland is apparently heading towards being depopulated like during the Famine and foreigners will end up running the place.

Of course, these viewpoints are very much on the fringe and it would only add to the misinformation to suggest otherwise but it does make one wonder at how such mindsets can find their way to the anti-abortion side. It was only a few years ago that one disgracefully insensitive and ignorant statement, on what was called “legitimate rape” by a conservative US politician, was promoted on an Irish anti-abortion group’s website. The politician claimed that a natural defence comes into play which inhibits fertilisation during “legitimate rape”. I’m not sure if the inference meant to be drawn from the use of ‘legitimate’ here is that ‘rape’ where pregnancies do occur is not actually rape as the woman’s natural defences expose the fact that she was enjoying it.

Whatever the meaning; that someone would make such a claim is profoundly disturbing. While only a minor example, it smacks of a desperate need to hang onto a particular worldview and to spread whatever misinformation, no matter how ridiculous, so as to carry the cause. Perhaps it is this impulse, that finds support for Trump and allows anti-abortion advocates to belittle Irish democracy and its electorate.

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