Ireland requests U.S. assistance in case of abortion-related robocalls

Shawn Pogatchnik/AP - Abortion rights protesters bearing pictures of Savita Halappanavar march through central Dublin Nov. 17, demanding that Ireland's government ensures that abortions can be performed to save a woman's life. Ireland has been shocked by the death of Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist who died of blood poisoning after being denied an abortion in a Dublin hospital last month.

In the politically charged aftermath of a pregnant woman’s death, Ireland’s simmering abortion debate exploded into mass demonstrations in Dublin and beyond last month. And in many thousands of homes across the nation, phones began ringing with an urgent message from a man speaking with an Irish lilt.

The calls might have been unremarkable in the United States, where abortion politics long have been fierce and political robocalls are protected by the First Amendment. But in Ireland, they are illegal, punishable by fines of up to $330,000 per offense. So upset were many Irish to get such a message at home — sometimes over dinner, or while putting their children to bed — that complaints flowed into authorities at a record pace.

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Irish authorities have since come to believe the calls were organized by members of a U.S.-based anti-abortion group seeking to export American-style political tactics to the old country.

The calls, made over the course of several days in late November, defended the nation’s strict ban on abortion amid rising controversy over reports that a gravely ill woman, Savita Halappanavar, had died after doctors supposedly denied a request to have her pregnancy terminated.

“Calling people in this way is counterproductive, but it’s also contrary to the law,” said Gary T. Davis, deputy data protection commissioner in Ireland. “If they were pro-abortion calls, we’d be treating them the same way.”

The Irish Data Protection Authority this month formally requested help from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which has made curbing robocalls a priority under Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

An FTC spokesman, Peter Kaplan, said the agency could not confirm the existence of the Irish request but said, “It is unlikely the commission would assist in a matter that involves non-commercial calls, which are outside the FTC’s jurisdiction.”

The death of Halappanavar, 31, a dentist and Indian citizen who was living in the western coastal city of Galway, galvanized the abortion rights movement there. It also generated considerable activism by Irish and American groups opposed to easing access to abortion in one of only two European nations where it now is banned. The other is Malta, which like Ireland is overwhelmingly Catholic.

Several U.S. antiabortion groups have featured the political debate on their Web sites and challenged claims that Ireland’s abortion ban had any role in Halappanavar’s death. Officials are still investigating whether she was refused an abortion and if her death could have been prevented.

A person familiar with the complaints about the Irish robocalls said that regulators, who have declined to publicly name the group involved, have traced the calls to an employee of Personhood USA, an activist group in Arvada, Colo., a Denver suburb.

Personhood USA’s president, Keith Mason, said he had no knowledge of anyone affiliated with the group having any role in the robocalls. “It certainly hasn’t come from us,” Mason said. “We’re just asking our volunteers to pray.”

The group has led efforts to declare every fetus a “person” from the moment of conception. Such a designation, defeated in ballot initiatives in several states in recent years, would convey full legal status to fetuses, potentially making termination of pregnancy a homicide.

Regulators have evidence tying someone claiming to be a Personhood USA employee to the robocalls, which were arranged through a Web site that offers calling services in many countries, said the person familiar with the complaints, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details not yet public. This person also said Irish regulators, in reviewing information related to the robocalls, have identified a phone number that also is featured on the Web sites for Personhood USA and Personhood Colorado, a related group.

The voice on the robocalls that began in late November quoted a veteran Galway obstetrician, Eamon O’Dwyer, saying, “I want to reassure you that Irish doctors do not put mothers’ lives at risk and we are always obliged to intervene to save mothers’ lives, even if that results in the unfortunate death of an unborn child. . . . Claims that doctors can’t intervene to save mothers who are in danger are untrue.”

“Ireland’s ban on abortions does not prevent doctors fighting to save women’s lives,” the voice on the call said.

There is no evidence that O’Dwyer had any personal role in arranging the robocalls.

The relationships between Irish and American abortion activists, while long-standing, are controversial in Ireland. Groups on both sides of the debate often accuse each other of doing the bidding of American allies and taking substantial sums of money from them.

Disclosure requirements are modest in Ireland, making it difficult to definitively track the flow of political money or other assistance, though Irish antiabortion activists have gone on fundraising tours in the United States, according to news reports.

The controversy over Halappanavar’s death, which happened on Oct. 28, began with a story two weeks later in the Irish Times.

Her husband was quoted in the story as saying that doctors at University Hospital Galway had refused her requests for an abortion after she checked into the hospital for complications related to a miscarriage after 17 weeks of pregnancy. The doctors said that because Ireland is “a Catholic country,” they could not remove the fetus while a heartbeat could still be detected, according to the story.

“Savita was really in agony,” her husband quoted as saying. “She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby.”

Halappanavar died a few days later of septicemia, a type of blood infection. Medical authorities in Ireland have debated whether an abortion would have saved her life and whether the nation’s abortion laws limited the freedom of doctors to act to protect her health. Thousands of Irish women travel overseas for abortions, mostly to Britain.

Coverage of Halappanavar’s death prompted demonstrations in Ireland and India, and pressure is building to make an explicit exception for cases in which abortion may save a woman’s life.

The robocalls, meanwhile, slowed dramatically after Irish authorities followed up on an initial round of complaints. But in recent days, authorities say a different round of robocalls have started.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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