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What pro-life Ireland can learn from pro-life America

40 Days for Life Prayer Vigil (40 Days for Life/CNA)

With the dawn of legal abortion in Ireland, the pro-life movement in the country is beginning a fight that their U.S. counterparts have been engaged in since 1973.

For more than 40 years, pro-life Americans have staged marches, prayer vigils, sidewalk counseling, and political protests. Now, pro-life advocates in Ireland must determine how a robust pro-life movement should look in their country when abortion is legal.

Earlier this week, after hearing news of a group of pro-life protesters who gathered outside of a medical center in Ireland for several hours, holding signs with slogans such as “Say no to abortion in Galway,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin urged caution.

While everyone “has a right to make a protest,” he told The Irish Times, General Practitioners perform surgeries for “everybody…for all sorts of reasons.”

He added that he is “not a person personally for protest, what the Church should be doing is strengthening its resolve to help women in crisis and to educate people.”

The word “protest” is a touchy one in the pro-life world. It can conjure up images of angry mobs with torches and pitchforks, so some pro-life people prefer terms like “witness” or “sidewalk counselor,” or simply a faithful person at a prayer vigil.

But for many in the U.S. pro-life movement, it is dialogue and prayer – not protest – that are at the heart of what they do.

Mary Fisher is one of those people.

Fisher had an abortion herself, that caused her deep regret, anger and pain for years. After she found healing through a Bible study, Fisher now works as a regional coordinator for Silent No More, an organization that gives women who regret their abortions a platform from which to tell their stories, and connects women who have had abortions to healing ministries.

While Fisher participates in pro-life activism, she is opposed to the term “protest.”

“Protesting is kind of an anger thing. That’s the way it’s perceived,” Fisher told CNA. “This makes me mad, so I’m going to go out and protest, because it makes me so mad.”

But there is already so much anger from people who are pro-choice or who have had an abortion, that the only way to win them over is with love, Fisher said.

“Our world is so full of anger, and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got this baby inside me that I don’t want, and everybody says it’s just a bunch of cells. So I’m just going to flush it down the toilet.’ And we do it in anger.”

Fisher herself experienced that anger after her own abortion.

“I lived as an angry woman for so many years, that one of my daughters actually moved from Colorado…to New York to get as far away from me as possible, because I was just so angry at everything.”

Fisher said the only thing that will win over those who are pro-abortion is to love them.

That doesn’t mean Fisher does not participate in the pro-life movement. She’s planning on attending her local March for Life, with a sign that says: “I regret my abortion. Ask me why.”

She also participates in 40 Days for Life prayer vigils, she shares her story through talks, and she helps connect women in need of healing from abortion to bible studies or retreats that can help them.

But ultimately, she says, abortion will never change through political protest, because abortion is not fundamentally a political issue.

“Abortion is not a political issue. Abortion is a heart issue. And until we get to the heart, nothing’s going to change,” she said.

“Protest is how we create friction. Just the word protest… just the thought of a protest is angry people, angry people with knives and swords and forks out to fight. This is a fight against principalities. It is not against flesh and blood.”

Shawn Carney is the president and CEO of 40 Days for Life, a popular form of pro-life activism that holds prayer vigils outside of local abortion clinics throughout the United States. The 40-day long campaigns of “prayer, fasting, and peaceful activism” have the goal of “repentance, to seek God’s favor to turn hearts and minds from a culture of death to a culture of life, thus bringing an end to abortion,” according to their mission statement.

It’s not a protest, it’s a prayer vigil, Carney told CNA.

“We take the approach of praying in front of the (clinics) because abortion is overwhelming. And it ends the life of a human being and it causes a woman to think she has no other option than to pay a physician to end the life of her child. And so in that great hopelessness, our Lord is the answer. And his joy is the answer, and his mercy is the answer,” Carney said.

The campaign has seen great success in turning the hearts of both abortion doctors and women considering abortions. Since its beginning in 2004, the organization knows of some 200 abortion facility workers who have had a change of heart and left their job, and over 15,000 women who have chosen life, during a 40 Days campaign.

It’s also often an entry point for people who have never participated in any kind of pro-life activism, Carney said.

“We’ve had 800,000 people participate in 40 Days for Life around the world in 50 different countries, and 30 percent of them said this is the first thing they ever did in the pro-life movement,” Carney said. “It has served as a great point of entry because it is peaceful and because it’s effective.”

But there is one word from Archbishop Martin’s comments that Carney does take issue with: caution. “I don’t agree with using the word caution with opposing abortion right now in Ireland,” he said.

“I think they need to do just the opposite…and I think that the Irish have been too timid and a little too cautious with their approach to abortion. Now they have it. And that happened to us here in the United States. Shamefully, we’re the example of this. We were cautious. We were timid. And now we have 61 million children that have been aborted.”

Instead, he said, the Irish should not lost hope, and should cling to God and to their lively Irish heritage, and use that in their advantage to continue to fight legalized abortion.

“The last thing the Irish should do is to throw their hands up in the air…I think they need to get out there. The Irish are a courageous people,” Carney said, adding that he is of Irish descent.

“The Irish aren’t cautious with anything, right? They’re the loudest and they’re the most fun and they like to sing and they have hot tempers. And they take their history and their country seriously,” he said.

“And this, more than any other time in their history, they need to do the same and they need to joyfully go out and witness the love and the hope and the mercy to those women who now think that Ireland is just a free for all to have an abortion.”

There are forms of activism that don’t belong in the pro-life movement, Carney added. Anything violent or with an intent to do harm “aren’t part of the pro-life movement,” he said. He’s seen people driven away from even peaceful forms of pro-life activism after bombings or murders of abortion doctors have taken place, he added.

“And so the archbishop doesn’t want that in their country. Who does?” he said.

“No bishop or no politician or no pro-life advocate in any other country is saying, ‘I want violence in my country to oppose abortion.’ No one’s ever said that, but they all should encourage the peaceful, public opposition to this because abortion is certainly a public issue.”

Even though abortion is a heavy issue, Carney said his message to pro-life Ireland is to hope.

“There’s practical things: there’s 40 Days for Life campaigns they need to do in Ireland. They need to have a March for Life. They need to get to work and we can help them do that,” he said.

“But the bigger picture is looking down, going to your knees in prayer and reflecting: ‘What is going to be my response? What am I going to tell my children and my grandchildren now that I, as an Irish person living in this country that I love, we have abortion now. And what’s going to be my response?’”

“And for that, we need to go to the Gospels.”