Jonathon van Maren

From the front lines of the culture wars

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Bernadette Smyth, the head of Northern Ireland's Precious Life, speaks at LifeSiteNews' Rome Life Forum in May 2014. Steve Jalsevac / LifeSiteNews

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Northern Ireland pro-life leader: We’re holding back legalized abortion by a thread

Jonathon van Maren Jonathon van Maren Follow Jonathon

November 5, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – As the devastating results of the Republic of Ireland’s abortion referendum came in on May 25, abortion activists erupted into wild celebration. Several of them waved a sign declaring, ominously and triumphantly, that “The North Is Next.”

Many people forget that while abortion has become legal in the Republic of Ireland, it is still illegal in Northern Ireland—making it one of the last pro-life countries in Europe. Pro-lifers there are desperately trying to fend off a massive push from pro-abortion forces, who feel the powerful momentum from the Republic’s referendum and sense that this is the moment to ramrod their agenda through. There is triumphalism in the abortion movement now, a sense that the goals they seek are inevitable.

Standing in their way are Northern Ireland’s beleaguered, magnificent, and defiant pro-life activists. I met several of them in the Republic in the lead-up to the May 25 referendum, as many had headed to the South to go door-to-door in Dublin or join the Vote No Roadshow. As I wrote at the time, the abortion wars have created some strange alliances—Catholic pro-lifers are publicly praising some Democratic Unionist Party politicians over their principled opposition to abortion, and many will admit that they are voting DUP because of Sinn Fein’s bloody betrayal of pre-born babies.

Bernadette Smyth of Precious Life is one of Northern Ireland’s most prominent pro-lifers. I met her in 2014 in California at an international pro-life conference, and again in the Republic in the leadup to the referendum. She founded her pro-life organization in 1997 after being stunned into action by a photo of an aborted baby, and it has since developed into the largest pro-life group in Northern Ireland, working the streets every single day. Since Precious Life’s formation, there has been what Smyth calls “a dramatic drop” in the numbers of women travelling from Northern Ireland to England for abortion.

With the situation in Northern Ireland changing almost by the week, I reached out to Bernadette to get her analysis on what is unfolding. This is our conversation—and I urge all pro-lifers to take the time to read it in full:

What has been happening in Northern Ireland since the referendum in the Republic?

Since the referendum in the Republic, there has been a fresh attack on our life-saving laws in Northern Ireland with an accelerated push from pro-abortion politicians across Ireland as well as MPs and Peers at Westminster attempting to change our laws. As a result, there have been many pro-life people across the North who have been awakened by the heart-breaking, tragic decision of the referendum. There is a renewed sense of urgency. However, still there is a sense of despair, deflation and defeat from people across Ireland – North and South – following the devastating referendum result. This has encouraged us to start a brand-new Lobby for Life Campaign – gathering signed petitions from the citizens of Northern Ireland.

These petitions give the public the opportunity to use their voice for the most innocent, defenceless members of society – the unborn. In Westminster, the recent pro-abortion ’10-Minute Bill,’ brought forward by Labour MP Diana Johnson, and Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn’s proposed amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill were both voted through by overwhelming majorities. However, thankfully, they will have no immediate practical effect on our laws in Northern Ireland but may be utilised in the future to force abortion on NI. Fiona Bruce, a Conservative MP, described the bills as failed attempts to undermine devolution." She added, “We must respect the 2016 decision by the Assembly, we must respect the fact that many people in Northern Ireland don’t want to see these changes.” 

In 1973, Westminster pledged that it would not impose any change in abortion law on the people of Northern Ireland without consultation with their elected representatives, and that any change would come about only with broad support from a cross-section of the people of Northern Ireland. This has been completely undermined and disregarded by pro-abortion politicians despite the fact that a devolved government was established in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. As recently as 2016, our elected representatives at Stormont voted to protect our pro-life laws. 

Furthermore, from our recent campaigns, we have gathered over 300,000 petitions from the people of Northern Ireland saying NO to abortion in the North. In July, thousands of people gathered at Stormont for the 12th annual All-Ireland Rally for Life and stood united for life. Despite the referendum result, there are still thousands of Irish people who along with thousands in the North will continue to stand united – ‘Together for Life.’ We will continue to fight on to keep mothers and their unborn children safeguarded in Northern Ireland– keeping abortion not only illegal but unthinkable.

What challenges does the pro-life movement in NI face currently?

At this moment, there are a whole range of challenges facing the pro-life movement here. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of financial funding. Running all our campaigns has had a serious impact on our funds and despite the result of the referendum, there is complacency among some pro-life people in Ireland – North and South – who are now saying “what’s the point in fighting on, sure we’ve already lost  the battle.” You could say apathy has crept into the movement. We are just about holding back the floodgates of legalised abortion by just a thread – we are the only lifeline that our unborn babies have at this time. 

However, these are crucial times for urgent pro-life work. Pro-abortion politicians, organisations, lobby groups and even the biased media are hell-bent on interfering with our pro-life laws to legalise abortion right up to birth – which they are attempting to sugar-coat with the euphemism “decriminalisation.”

Westminster particularly represents a huge challenge for us because pro-abortion politicians continue to disregard the principles of devolution, our democratic process and the peace process in Northern Ireland by trying to force abortion onto Northern Ireland through the whole nine months of pregnancy. This is despite the fact they know nothing, nor want to know anything, about the situation here and are totally out of touch with the views of the public that we see expressed every day through our work. There is a real attempt to caricature the people of Northern Ireland as living in some sort of archaic society because we don’t allow legalised killing of unborn babies, and this is a stereotype which we have to work to remove, although this is difficult because it is so often reinforced by the media. 

What is your prediction for how it will all play out?

We know that from 21 years of pro-life activism on the streets of Northern Ireland that there is no on-the-ground demand for abortion here. The majority of people in Northern Ireland believe that abortion is a barbaric, backwards answer to unplanned pregnancy and they believe that women and babies deserve better. The response to our campaigns in recent years has been overwhelmingly positive, and in 2016 we presented a fantastic 300,000 strong pro-life petition to Stormont calling for our laws to be protected and upheld. 

We hear from people every day that they do not want the Westminster government speaking on their behalf; they want their voices heard, and the representatives they elected to speak for them. We fully believe that our laws can and will be protected and upheld! Abortion discriminates against circumstances of conception, predicted lifespan, race, gender and disability while, in Northern Ireland, we respect the right to life of every unborn human being. As Lord Shinkwin, of the House of Lords in Westminster, who has brittle bone syndrome, stated during a debate over one of the pro-abortion amendments put forward, “As it stands tonight, Northern Ireland is the safest place in our United Kingdom to be diagnosed with a disability before birth.” 

What does the international pro-life movement need to know about what is going on in NI?

The international pro-life movement should know that so many people in Northern Ireland are pro-life and proud, and that we want both women and babies protected. We are one of the last remaining pro-life countries in Europe, and the whole world. However, we have had our democratic process and devolution undermined by Westminster and as early as next year we could have abortion forced unto us against the wishes of the Northern Irish people and elected representatives. I think the global movement needs to know that the movement here is still hopeful, motivated, passionate and equipped to keep Northern Ireland pro-life. We are still fighting, and we will not give up. Although Ireland is tragically no longer a pro-life nation, Northern Ireland is still a strong pro-life province and we are working every day to raise awareness and keep it this way. 

We are always going to work tirelessly to save mothers and babies from abortion, and we know that no matter what is happening in the Westminster government we will continue to be a voice for our brothers and sisters in the womb. In addition, the movement around the world needs to understand and appreciate the mounting pressure we are under due to what happened in the Republic of Ireland, and also because of international pressure from politicians, the abortion lobby, the media, abortion campaigners and celebrities who are all using their influence in an attempt to shame Northern Ireland and dismantle our legal protection for the unborn. We need serious prayer, support and action to help us fight this accelerated battle, because we cannot do it alone!

What are the biggest challenges you face going forward?

We are under a lot of pressure from pro-abortion MPs and Peers in Westminster trying to change our life-saving laws and force abortion unto Northern Ireland up to birth. Furthermore, the media, who are colluding with the pro-abortion organisations and politicians, are using the same tactics used in the run-up to the Irish abortion referendum – completely ignoring the fact that abortion is the brutal killing of unborn children. The media are hiding the truth about abortion and dressing it up with ‘emotional’ stories, the very same stories that turned the once pro-life Irish Republic into a pro-abortion country. But we won’t allow our unborn babies to be pushed “out of sight - out of mind”. To stay on the offensive we need to expose the lies of the media and pro-abortion politicians. While their propaganda is focused on ‘decriminalising abortion’, we will expose the truth - that abortion kills babies and hurts women!

At this critical time, when pro-abortion politicians in Westminster are hell-bent on interfering with our pro-life laws to legalise abortion right up to birth, Precious Life are giving an ‘all-out push’ to promote our Lobby for Life Campaign. It is vital that we have even more people distributing petition postcards in their communities, and encouraging their churches, prayer groups, and schools to sign these petitions. These petitions to the Secretary of State are giving the people of Northern Ireland an opportunity to make their voices heard in defence of our unborn children.

We need to produce visual images showing the beautiful humanity of the baby in the womb, and the brutal inhumanity of abortion which will be displayed on massive Billboards – both on the street, and on mobile lorries travelling across the towns and cities of Northern Ireland. Within the next few weeks I want to start ordering and booking these billboard posters. I have all the artwork prepared for the visual images, but I need the finances to make them a reality.

It would be an absolute shame and tragedy if Precious Life were unable to continue our campaigns and life-saving work due to lack of financial support and let our country fall to the terrible ‘culture of death’ in the world – where at least 55 million innocent unborn children are murdered every year. Therefore, the biggest challenge that we face going forward is trying to increase our funding.

Any concluding thoughts?

There are over 100,000 people alive today because of our pro-life laws in Northern Ireland and over 300,000 people have signed our petitions saying NO to abortion in Northern Ireland. We are one of the safest places for pregnant women. We know real healthcare saves lives and real compassion doesn’t kill. We provide real life-affirming healthcare, love and support for women and their babies with our two-patient care model in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, our laws safeguard the human right to life for mothers and their unborn babies in law, policy and practice. Precious Life will not compromise on our pro-life position. There is never a medical necessity for abortion – the intentional killing of an unborn baby – and there is never a circumstance in which abortion can be justified. 

We will continue to fight to keep abortion not only illegal in Northern Ireland but unthinkable. We will continue to change hearts and minds through our campaigns, rallies, various information leaflets, our social media platforms and through one-to-one conversations during our weekly outreach that we have been doing for the last two decades. We will never stop speaking out for the most vulnerable in society and demanding better for Northern Irish women and their children than the damage, destruction and death of abortion. Above all we must pray like everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on us.



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Jonathon van Maren

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Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has been translated into more than eight languages and published widely online as well as print newspapers such as the Jewish Independent, the National Post, the Hamilton Spectator and others. He has received an award for combating anti-Semitism in print from the Jewish organization B’nai Brith. His commentary has been featured on CTV Primetime, Global News, EWTN, and the CBC as well as dozens of radio stations and news outlets in Canada and the United States.

He speaks on a wide variety of cultural topics across North America at universities, high schools, churches, and other functions. Some of these topics include abortion, pornography, the Sexual Revolution, and euthanasia. Jonathon holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in history from Simon Fraser University, and is the communications director for the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform.

Jonathon’s first book, The Culture War, was released in 2016.