Irish-Americans on both sides join the campaign trail

Chris Slattery is heavily involved in the Catholic anti-abortion groups in the US; Kieran O’Reilly is part of a vibrant Repeal the Eighth community in New York

Irish-American Chris Slattery is in Queens monitoring a court case involving an abortion doctor, Robert Rho, who has been charged with manslaughter over a botched abortion.

Slattery, who is proud of his Tipperary roots, set up an anti-abortion group Expectant Mother Care 33 years ago and claims that his organisation has rescued 43,000 mothers who would have had an abortion.

This weekend, Slattery arrives in Ireland, but he is already on the radar of the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo), after Facebook referred a case to it after he paid to have it given a higher profile.

Foreign political donations are banned by Sipo, though there is no law limiting personal campaigning. Scrolling through his Facebook app on his phone outside the Queens courtroom, Slattery shows me that he paid just over $4 for the post.

“I don’t know what the fuss is about. It literally cost me a couple of dollars,” he says. As he navigates his Facebook site, he shows how he has shared both paid “boosted” posts and regular posts, all calling for a No vote in the referendum.

His ads are targeted to reach his contacts and friends of his contacts in specified countries – mostly Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as Spain, the United States and other European countries.

"New York is the abortion capital of the world," he says, pointing out that New York state legalised abortion in 1970, before Roe V Wade. "You can get an abortion for any reason in New York state up to 24 weeks.

“While there are restrictions on the books for the third trimester, technically if two doctors say it is medically necessary a woman can get an abortion to birth.”

Slattery also plans to visit Cork and Tipperary over coming days during his Irish trip. A proud Irish-American, his wife is heavily involved with the Irish-American and Catholic community in New York.

Both held Save the Eighth signs at this year's St Patrick's Day parade in Yonkers having been prohibited from campaigning at the main New York St Patrick's Day parade, which was attended by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Slattery has "huge admiration" for the anti-abortion movement in Ireland particularly given the restrictions on broadcasting and advertising ahead of the referendum – even before this week's news that Facebook and Google have placed curbs of their own.

“In our country we have a constitution, and a first amendment that allows us to speak freely. In Ireland you have much more restrictive laws. That’s why the pro-life movement in Ireland is so impressive. Without the freedoms that we possess, they have been able to hold strong on defending the unborn for the past 50 years of an onslaught of legal abortion in the western world.”


Travelling with Slattery to Ireland this week will be

Joel Brind

, a professor of biology and endocrinology at Baruch college in New York, who argues that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer.

Slattery says his aim in travelling to Ireland is to encourage the anti-abortion movement, and lend his support for the Save the Eight campaign. “I’ve always believed that abortion could be greatly reduced in any country by more effective outreach to women. We call it the ‘alternatives to abortion’ movement.”

He describes a current case, where his organisation has convinced a lesbian woman, who had recently split with her partner but found herself pregnant after a sexual encounter with a man, to keep the baby rather than choose an abortion.

But Slattery represents only one side of the Irish-American community. While much of the focus has been on anti-abortion sympathisers in the United States and elsewhere, there is also a vibrant Repeal the Eighth community in New York.

Kieran O’Reilly (25) is studying for a doctorate in Mathematics in New York. Two years ago he and his partner Aoife set up the Repeal the 8th NYC group, along with Aoife’s American friend, Amanda.

“I think there was a real sense among people of my generation that we wanted to do something, wanted to build on the momentum we had seen during the marriage equality referendum,” O’Reilly says. “Also, with Brexit and the Trump election, a real sense of powerlessness had set it, so there was a desire to do something concrete, to re-energise around the Repeal the 8th debate.”

Repeal 8th NYC is part of the Repeal Global movement which is campaigning for a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum in countries around the world.

The New York-based group has about 1,000 followers and regularly holds events and information sessions.

“Our emphasis is on providing information, both about the referendum itself, and about the rules around voting and getting on the electoral register,” O’Reilly says. While the #Hometovote movement that emerged during the marriage equality referendum is a focus of the group, he notes that only people who have left Ireland within the last 18 months are permitted to vote.

The group regularly takes part in Skype conference calls with other Repeal movements across the world to discuss strategy and campaigns, and holds events in solidarity with the repeal movement in Ireland and elsewhere.

Last September the group gathered at the Irish Consulate in New York in solidarity with the March4Choice event taking place in Dublin on the same day; similarly, it held a vigil to mark the anniversary of the death of Savita Halappanavar who died in University Hospital Galway in October 2012.


The group also runs letter-writing campaigns, with members seeking to highlight their views on the upcoming referendum in the pages of their local media outlets.

O'Reilly says that living in New York has shown him that the battle for abortion rights may not be won, even if the referendum to repeal the Eighth passes. He describes visiting an abortion clinic in the Bronx where patients were being met by protesters. "We went there to help women get in and out of the clinic. Protesters holding rosary beads and signs were just feet from the women – many of them were Irish and Irish- American, and were trying every tactic to try and discourage the women from having abortions."

While O’Reilly will not be eligible to vote in the referendum, having lived more than 18 months in New York, he is travelling back to Ireland for the vote and will campaign in the days ahead of it.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent