The Problem(s) with Youth Defence

Last Wednesday, 28 November, I joined maybe 1,000 other pro-choice demonstrators outside the gates of Leinster House, at the corner of Buswell’s Hotel, as members of Dáil Éireann voted on – and defeated – legislation on abortion. Richard Boyd-Barrett TD spoke at the demonstration and recalled how, 18 years earlier at another pro-choice demonstration, he was in the same spot outside Leinster House when members of Youth Defence opened a van outside Buswell’s, people inside passed around hurley sticks to other Youth Defence supporters, and pro-choice activists were physically attacked.

Despite labelling themselves as an ‘Irish’ group, the vast majority of Youth Defence’s support seems to come from overseas, a point that they never seem to address. This hiding of facts is commonplace from the group, with its offices, funding, and sister-organisations all interlinked into a big convoluted mess.

In short, Youth Defence are not nice people. Not nice at all.

Background

I had heard of Youth Defence in the past on a number of occasions, as their methods of shoving photos of aborted foetuses into the faces of adults and children alike has drawn much controversy. However, I have become more familiar with them this year as they ramped up their anti-choice campaign with the “Abortion tears her life apart” billboard and poster campaign. This campaign attracted a lot of controversy, especially as it was seen to be giving out misinformation, and shaming women who had already sought – or were seeking – abortion for what were probably already very difficult circumstances.

This attitude angered me. I am very liberal as it is, but the issue of abortion wasn’t a matter that had come to the forefront of my mind in a very strong sense until then. It’s probably fair to say that Youth Defence and their campaigns led to my strong dislike of the group and the anti-choice movement in general. Indeed, I would say that the recent surge in debate surrounding abortion was catalysed by their billboard campaign, and that that debate is now forcing Ireland to finally introduce legislation. Maybe Youth Defence are instruments of their own demise.

Following this I became more interested and involved in the feminist movement in general, and the abortion rights movement in particular. I joined the Facebook-organised ‘March For Choice’ two months ago, which attracted several thousand people voicing their support for legislation to cater for the X Case in 1992. It also attracted snide comments and what I feel was a lot of jealousy from Youth Defence and their supporters (who wouldn’t be jealous? The march was organised and promoted within a month!).

Over the last few months I’ve been keeping an eye on Youth Defence’s Facebook page (don’t ‘like’ the page; you can follow what’s being said without liking it) and it appears that the comments and followers provide an interesting gauge for the anti-choice sentiment out there. I commented on a couple of their threads and tried to engage their followers into a rational discussion on abortion, but of course I was banned from posting on their page, just like many before me and many after me. No great loss, I guess.

This blog post will focus on their Facebook activitiy, as I haven’t really had much interaction with Youth Defence on other networks like Twitter.

The History

I’ve come across some interesting history surrounding Youth Defence over the last week, while trying to put all these thoughts into context. The history of Youth Defence is a discomforting and murky one. Bock The Robber has a fascinating article about the organisation, and the Dublin Abortion Rights group has some information on violence associated with Youth Defence.

  • Úna Bean Nic Mhathúna, co-founder of Youth Defence, is the brother of Larry White, a member of the republican paramilitary group Saor Éire who was killed in a feud with the Official IRA.
  • Úna Bean was a vehement anti-divorce campaigner in the run up to the 1995 Divorce Referendum (“Go away, ye wife-swapping sodomites!” lol).
  • In 1992 on Thomas Street and in 1994 at the Dáil, members of Youth Defence attacked and assaulted pro-choice campaigners, causing many injuries.
  • In 1998 an elderly member of staff of the Marie Stopes clinic on Blessington Street was physically attacked.
  • In 1999 members of staff of the Irish Family Planning Association were assaulted, the association’s clinic on Cathal Brugha Street was occupied by hundreds of Youth Defence supporters, and the IFPA’s director, Tony O’Brien, was continually harrassed.
  • Also in 1999, The Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Service in Belfast was forced to close following continuous pickets and disruption by anti-choicers (Precious Life, linked to Youth Defence), and following an arson attack on their premises.

An Irish Pro-Life Group?

The group’s main method of promoting their stance on Facebook is by stating what is usually misinformation, then urging the reader to “Like if you agree!”.

But before we take a look at this misinformation, there’s something else that should be talked about…

Youth Defence labels itself as an Irish anti-choice/pro-life group. However, most of its supporters are from the United States. ‘Huh?!?’ I hear you exasperate. But yes, it is true, and this has been revealed thanks to the clever sleuthing and statistics-building of Geoff Lillis via his blog Geoff’s Shorts.

Who follows Youth Defence? — Posted with permission from Geoff Lillis

Geoff did some analysis on the @youthdefence Twitter account, where he found that 59% of followers are from the USA and Canada. Only 14% are from Ireland.

Tom Lowe pointed out via Broadsheet.ie that on Facebook, almost 38,000 followers are from the USA, with just over 9,000 from Ireland.

So what about funding? Geoff covers this nicely too on his blog. Youth Defence is based in 60a Capel Street, Dublin 1. So are Cóir, the Life Institute, the Mother and Child Campaign, Truth TV, prolifeinfo.ie, and the Pro-Life Alliance. A founder of this group was Scott Schittl, who then went on to become president of Life House Ireland, an “… American, tax-exempt organization… [whose] purpose is to … make it easier for Americans to support Ireland’s pro-life success story.” The donation form for Youth Defence was also in US dollar denomination until relatively recently, when it was pointed out that there was no euro option on it.

Now I’m not one to cast aspersions. But, like, y’know…

The Misinformation

Now, where were we? Oh yes, the lies.

I’m not entirely sure where to start with this because so much of the misinformation put out by Youth Defence is interlinked, yet a lot of it is also made out to be factual and true. Without doing research, it can be hard to filter out the nonsense from the real discussion on abortion.

  • The majority of people in Ireland don’t want abortion here

A Red C poll recently undertaken with The Sunday Business Post suggests otherwise, with 85% of people in favour of legislating for the X Case, where the mother’s life is threatened, even by suicide. Leo Varadkar has his own opinion on this, as usual (to which I give Lisa McInerney’s article as a reply: what’s really so bad about freely-available abortion?).

  • Ireland is the Safest Place to Have a Baby

Nope. It’s not. And once I pointed this out on an anti-Youth Defence Facebook page some time ago, this statement from Youth Defence became a bit more reserved and is now “Ireland is one of the safest places to have a baby”.

There are two issues in question here: maternal mortality rate (MMR) and perinatal mortality rate (PMR). MMR refers to the death of the mother, where PMR is the death of the infant around the time of birth. While official figures can vary a little (mainly because research is undertaken at different times), a quick Google will show you that Ireland has neither the lowest MMR or PMR.

Here is the (unpublished) letter that I sent to the Irish Times on September 10th regarding this point. Niamh Uí Bhriain (formerly Nic Mathúna) is an anti-choice campaigner with the Life Institute and daughter of Úna Bean Nic Mathúna.

Sir,- In response to Niamh Uí Bhriain (Letters, September 10th), the treatment for ectopic pregnancy requires the termination of that pregnancy. This is a therapeutic abortion that is a medical necessity, regardless of what does or does not cross an obstetrician’s mind.
Secondly, a research paper (Hogan et al, 2010) published in The Lancet lists Ireland as the European country with the 5th lowest maternal mortality rate: the four ‘safer’ countries are: Austria, Luxembourg, Sweden, and Italy. This, along with the ESRI report stating that Ireland ranks 15th in perinatal mortality, proves that Ireland is simply not the “safest” place to have a baby
Ms Uí Bhriain would do well to heed her own advice and get the facts straight before attempting to muddy the waters even more.
Yours, etc,
Conor Farrell
  • Abortion is Never Necessary to Save a Woman’s Life / Doctors Will Always Save the Life of the Mother Even If It Means the Death of the Baby / Treatment for Ectopic Pregnancy [etc] is not abortion because the death of the foetus is not intended.

The horrible truth is that yes, sometimes abortion is necessary. Doctors often won’t perform an abortion, because legally (under legislation) they can’t. Women have already died because there is no clear method within the law that allows a woman and her medical practitioner to perform a medically-necessary abortion. It is a Constitutional right to be able to seek an abortion if your life is in danger, but without legislation and clarity women have died and will continue to die. In the case of ectopic pregnancies, it falls back my letter to The Irish Times, above. An ectopic pregnancy is life-threatening condition. The treatment for ectopic pregnancy (and probably other cases) is the termination of pregnancy. Abortion is the termination of pregnancy. It has nothing to do with intention. Treatment in this case is abortion, regardless of how you want to dress it up.

These responses to “facts” may sound cold and clinical, but when it comes to necessary medicine such as abortion, one must be factual without wrapping things up in cotton wool. Abortion is not a nice decision to make, regardless of why it’s being done.

I have no doubt that Youth Defence will now evolve their statements and comments yet again to get around the medical facts. Watch out for it.

The Followers

In recent weeks I’ve seen something of a surge of religious posts by followers of Youth Defence on their Facebook page. In light of the recent tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, Youth Defence have been strangely quiet. They have outrightly denied that her death was the result of not having an abortion, yet still demand that those who say her death was the result of not having an abortion to “wait for the facts after the report”. The hypocrisy here is clear.

They have accused the pro-choice movement of “hijacking” Savita’s death (despite the fact that the recent pro-choice campaign had already been very active this year, and that her husband Praveen wanted to highlight Ireland’s lack of abortion laws following his wife’s death).

Aside from those two things, followers of Youth Defence seem to be calling for prayer much more. The obvious religious influence and bias from the anti-choice movement is showing.

Arguments in support of the anti-choice campaign are becoming more vague and logically twisted. Any attempt to discuss even the littlest aspect of abortion will be shot down, with even the most basic questions left unanswered. Insults will fly, the poster will be told to go away, and eventually, the Youth Defence Facebook page administrators will ban the poster (often not before throwing an offensive dig in themselves).

Here’s a comment that’s popping up on a regular basis. This logic (or lack thereof) is both amazing and despairing:

Amazing logic there. Well done.

And That’s That – For Now…

So there you have it; that’s the main bulk of my issues with Youth Defence. Youth Defence is a murky, twisted, and dark organisation, intent on ignoring reality and thriving on the guilt it inflicts on women who have had or need abortions. It intentionally muddies the waters, so much so that even 20 years after the X Case ruling Ireland still has no legislation, thanks to the influence of Youth Defence and the anti-choice movement over recent decades. It was formed on – and now feeds on- extreme religious tendencies instead of looking at the real, scientific facts.

The debate was spurned on by the infamous anti-choice billboard campaign, and now that debate appears to be pointing to their downfall and the introduction of legislation. Ironic.

I suspect I will write more about Youth Defence in the future: I have no doubt that they will change their tactics as Ireland progresses and evolves to finally give women the healthcare they deserve.

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