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Ireland’s Catholic traditions tested as abortion referendum looms

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Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s government said it will begin drafting legislation to allow women access to unrestricted abortion up to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. (In the U.S., abortion is generally restricted between 20 weeks and “viability,” depending on the state, according to the Guttmacher Institute. However, Mississippi recently introduced a bill to prohibit abortion after 15 weeks.)

“I believe that this is a decision about whether we want to continue to stigmatize and criminalize our sisters, our co-workers and our friends, or whether we are prepared to take a collective act of leadership to show empathy and compassion,” Varadkar said.

Harrold says she is not afraid of speaking openly about her illegal actions. “It’s essential to break unjust laws, to show that they need to be changed,” she said.

‘Either we are for Christ or we are against him’

Anti-abortion protesters were bused in from all over the country for a Rally for Life last month in Dublin. Many prayed or said the rosary as they walked the streets.

The turnout was not unexpected. Some 78 percent of the country’s population identify as Catholic, according to Ireland’s 2016 census.

However, the Roman Catholic Church’s authority and reputation has been damaged in a series of scandals over the past 20 years. They include the sexual abuse of children by priests, the exploitation and abuse of unmarried and “fallen women” at Catholic-run workhouses, and the forced adoptions of children of unmarried parents.

As he stood in the sun watching marchers pass by, James Mary McInerney, a friar at the Church of Visitation in north Dublin, said that as a Catholic it was his obligation to protect life.

“We believe all life is sacred and comes from God and is a gift from God,” he said. “From conception in the womb to our natural end, all life has to be protected, loved and cherished.”

Addressing his congregation at Mass the next day, McInerney did not mince his words, saying no Catholic could vote yes on the referendum and “be in union” with Christ.

“We don’t have a choice,” he told attentive faces in the church’s busy pews. “Either we are for Christ or we are against him.”

Members of the congregation let out audible gasps when the friar said he was aware of Catholics who will vote “yes” to repealing the Eighth Amendment. “You can’t do that and remain a Catholic,” he said to murmurs of agreement.

After his homily, McInerney said he believed there were no circumstances in which abortion could be morally justifiable.

“There are some things that never change, and one of them is ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” he said.

A surreal journey

Harrold is not the only Irish woman to have been affected by the Eighth Amendment.

Seven years ago, Siobhan Donohue was just under 22 weeks pregnant when she traveled to England — where abortion is legal — to terminate her third pregnancy.

At 20 weeks, her unborn son, T.J., was diagnosed with anencephaly, a fetal anomaly in which he was missing a large part of his brain, skull and scalp. Donohue and her husband were told that if T.J. survived birth, he would not live for long.

Image: Siobhan Donohue
Siobhan Donohue.Ziad Jaber / NBC News

Due to her baby bump, the doctor said she could foresee uncomfortable conversations in the supermarket and her children’s day-care center and couldn’t ignore “the fact that my baby was going to die.”

Donohue, who is now 46, decided to travel to Liverpool. Describing the journey as “surreal,” she recalled boarding a flight with her husband alongside bachelorette parties and tourists jetting off for a weekend away.

“It felt like we’d been sent out of our country, we’d been told go somewhere else if you want to do this,” she said, sitting at the kitchen table of her family home in the seaside town of Bray, south of Dublin. “It was a very isolating experience, a very lonely journey.”

Abortion is only permitted in Ireland if a woman’s life is in danger, which includes the risk of suicide. It is not permitted in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities.

In 2013, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act reduced the maximum prison sentence for procuring an illegal abortion in Ireland from life imprisonment to 14 years. No one has been convicted under the new law, according to the Irish Courts Services’ records.

Image: Referendum on abortion law
Demonstrators hold posters as they march for more liberal abortion laws in Dublin, Ireland, on Sept. 30.Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters file

However, Irish customs officials regularly seize abortion pills at the border. And anyone who helps a woman procure an illegal abortion can also face up to 14 years in jail.

In 2016, 3,265 Irish women journeyed to England or Wales to terminate their pregnancies, the equivalent of around nine women a day.

A few weeks after Donohue had the procedure, TJ’s cremated remains were delivered to her door by courier.

“You move on from a grief, you get over a bereavement eventually, you learn how to live with it, but the rejection I felt having to leave my own country, that’s the bit that’s really hard to swallow,” she said.

‘They want to live, they fight to survive’

While Donohue’s experiences inspired her to campaign for the Eighth Amendment to be repealed, others who have been through difficult pregnancies say they feel differently.

Kate Lawlor, 52, says even as a child she knew abortion was wrong. That sense was solidified when anti-abortion groups visited her school to display pictures of the process when she was a teenager.

Then came the birth of her twins. They were born at 29 weeks, 11 weeks premature.

“I remember thinking, this is life, whether they’re due or not due, whether it is several weeks before they’re due, whether they’re still forming, it’s a natural process, they want to live, they fight to survive,” she said.

Lawlor feels that life begins at conception, but like many people who describe themselves as anti-abortion in modern-day Ireland, she said her beliefs are not grounded in religious faith but in human rights.

A heartbreaking secret

Sinéad — who did not want to use her real name because her family does not know she had an abortion — knows how black and white the Catholic faith can be on abortion.

“My family are quite Catholic and incredibly pro-life,” said Sinéad, who found herself pregnant midway through her entry exams for law school.

Having spoken to her parents about abortion previously, Sinéad said she knew she would have to go it alone.

“They turned around to me and said that in their views abortion, no matter how many weeks in, will always be murder and they could never allow me to go through with something like that, and they would be incredibly disappointed if it I did,” she explained.

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Protesters carry signs calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment during at rally in Dublin on March 8.Niall Carson / PA via AP

The 25-year-old said not being able to tell her parents was heartbreaking.

Sinéad eventually discovered the Abortion Support Network, which helps women in the Irish Republic travel to England for the procedure. The now-trainee lawyer explained how they helped her gather money, book flights and arranged to have a volunteer pick her up on arrival in Liverpool.

“They couldn’t have been any better,” she said. “Thank God an organization like that exists.”

Mara Clarke, the founder of the Abortion Support Network, has received calls from thousands of women like Sinéad. “You can just feel it, the minute you say, ‘Yes, we can help.’ It’s like you can feel her spine untensing and her shoulders going down,” she said.

Two medical perspectives

As the head of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, Dr. Rhona Mahony has dealt with some of the most complex pregnancies in Ireland.

Image: Ireland abortion referendum
Dr. Rhona Mahony.Ziad Jaber / NBC News

Her experiences have left her in no doubt that the Eighth Amendment should be repealed, arguing that it poses an “unacceptable risk” to women’s health and places undue pressure on her staff.

“At what point does a risk to health become a risk to life and what is the risk to life? Is it 10 percent chance of dying, 20 percent?” Mahony asked, sitting on the bed of what was seemingly the only empty delivery room in the buzzing hospital.

“We’re making very complicated clinical decisions in the shadow of a custodial sentence of 14 years,” she said. “I think this distorts and potentially delays clinical decision-making, which is really not good for women.”

Dr. Orla Halpenny, a general practitioner, disagrees that repealing the Eighth Amendment is the answer for reproductive rights.

Image: Ireland abortion referendum
Dr. Orla Halpenny.Ziad Jaber / NBC News

While she says obstetrics is clear that if the mother’s life is in danger it will not always be possible to treat both patients equally, the constitutional amendment ensures that the life of the unborn child is protected.

“My perspective on it would be that there are two lives in the case of a pregnancy,” she said. “The fact that one life is inconvenient, or has a disability, or even has a terminal illness, doesn’t make it any the less deserving of respect and care.”

Instead of opting for abortion, Halpenny said society should do more to support women financially and socially to at least go through with their pregnancies and then decide on keeping the child or putting them up for adoption.

‘We refuse to ship our shame across the sea’

Last month’s anti-abortion rally was distinctly patriotic.

Image: Ireland abortion laws
People march through Dublin to campaign for the Eighth Amendment to be retained on March 10.Caroline Quinn / PA via AP

Celtic bands played as tens of thousands walked from the Garden of Remembrance — dedicated to those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom — across the River Liffey to the Irish Parliament. Many were draped in the Irish tricolor and at one point the crowd began singing the national anthem.

But the crowd was also diverse, with Catholics from Ireland to India, young and old, and feminist campaigners also present.

Helen Seagrave, 66, had come with her daughter and five of her grandchildren. “I don’t think it’s right that you should kill babies,” she said, holding a poster displaying pictures of her grandchildren as newborns. “Any human being worth their salt would stand up for that.”

The pro-abortion rights rally held on International Women’s Day was smaller but more vocal. The spirit was defiant, and the crowd was younger and consisted primarily of women.

“Hey mister, hey mister, get your laws off my sister,” went one chant, as the marchers walked from the Garden of Remembrance to the Customs House on the banks of the river.

A line of young women wheeled suitcases, their luggage a symbol of the women who have to travel abroad to terminate their pregnancies.

Stickers stuck to the bags read: “We refuse to ship our shame across the sea any longer.”

Harrold, who took the abortion pill, was among the protesters leading the charge and as the speeches finished on the steps of the Customs House she began the unified chanting.

“Hear our voices, respect our choices,” she shouted through a megaphone. “Not the Church, not the state, women should decide their fate.”

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COVID-19: Lebanon’s health service close to collapse with case numbers beyond ‘wildest predictions’ | World News

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The head of Lebanon’s main coronavirus hospital has said the country’s health system is close to collapse – with not enough beds, drugs, oxygen, ventilators or staff.

In a stark interview with Sky News, Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax coronavirus restrictions over a few fateful days at Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and deaths over the past few weeks.

He allowed our cameras into the casualty department and the intensive care unit of the Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Beirut to see the pressure he and his staff are under.

Dr Abiad said all hospitals were reporting full, or almost full, intensive care units – and many have patients stuck in emergency wards, waiting for a bed.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse
Image:
Dr Abiad said the government has thrown the healthcare system ‘into an abyss’

“Some patients are not able to find a bed and there’s been several cases where patients have died in their homes,” he said.

“If you look at the sharp rise in cases you see that Lebanon is really seeing unprecedented COVID numbers which is even beyond our wildest predictions.

“The number of daily new cases has almost quadrupled since where we were almost a month ago,” said Dr Abiad.

“At the same time we’ve seen that the number of deaths has also tripled and the number of patients in ICU has gone up by almost 100%.”

On 17 December, four days before a nationwide lockdown was due to end, the government decided to ease a series of restrictions for the holiday period.

Under intense pressure from businesses, they allowed nightclubs, bars and restaurants to open at 50% capacity while urging people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

But videos on social media over Christmas and New Year showed packed clubs and bars. No attempts were made to crackdown on the violations.

“It’s clear that those were catastrophic [decisions] and what has happened is they’ve thrown the whole healthcare system of the country into a major abyss,” said Dr Abiad.

In the casualty department, the pressures are obvious. There is a shortage of beds, drugs, oxygen, ventilators and staff.

It is a relatively modern hospital but it looks sparse, except for the number of patients.

A nurse strokes a patient’s head.

“I am passing out… I am passing out,” he tells the nurse.

“No, no! You’re doing very well. Don’t be scared. Your oxygen is good. 99%. Honestly it’s very good,” she reassures him.

In the next bed is 53-year-old Aida Derawi. She first began to feel unwell 15 days ago. Her family had hoped she would recover at home, but this week things got worse.

“Yesterday I felt I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “My back and lungs were aching. My kids took me around to find a hospital but not a single one would accept me.”

Eventually space was found and she is improving slowly.

Nurse Hussein al Khazn tells us that in this wave of the virus, the patients are no longer predominately elderly.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over a few fateful days at Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse. Pic: Red Cross volunteer Waad Abdulaad
Image:
Red Cross volunteer Waad Abdulaad is very much on Lebanon’s frontline

“Much younger now,” he says. “Before we had 50, 60-year-old patients.

“Now it’s 20, 25, 30-year-old patients and they’re very, very critical – all of them.”

On the other side of the city, we’re given access to the Lebanese Red Cross coordination centre.

In a well-organised control room, a team of volunteers is juggling telephone calls from patients’ families with radio calls to the ambulance teams on the ground.

“So, she’s ill with coronavirus?” a volunteer asks down the line. “So she’s got shortness of breath?”

A radio message is sent to one of the dispatch teams.

“We’re dispatched to a patient that tested positive for COVID and she’s currently suffering from desaturation and vomiting,” volunteer medic Waad Abdulaal says from the passenger seat of the ambulance.

“So we’re going to go ahead, assess her and see if there’s a need to take her to the hospital.”

Lebanon was already in a critical state economically.

Years of accumulative economic mismanagement has led to a slow collapse in every sector of society.

That was then exacerbated by the pandemic and the devastating port explosion last year.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse
Image:
Ambulance crews carry an 80-year-old woman down a flight of stairs in darkness due to another power cut

Up several flights of a stairwell, in darkness because of yet another power cut, the Red Cross team reaches its patient.

Madame Imad is 80 years old. She tested positive last week and her diabetes is complicating her condition. She needs to go to hospital, but there is an issue finding a bed for her.

The positivity rate across the country this past week has been at 21% (the 14-day rolling average).

That means the community spread of the virus is out of control. It needs to be at 5% before there is any chance of regaining a grip of the crisis.

Calls are made and they think space has been found at a hospital nearby.

Madame Imad is carried down the stairs as her daughter Sophie looks straight into our camera and pleads: “Show them that there are people dying before they reach the hospital.”

The elderly woman did make it to the hospital. But she was sent home again. There were no beds. Her family has told us her condition this weekend has worsened.

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Alexei Navalny supporters clash with police and ‘hundreds arrested’ as mass protests expected across Russia | World News

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Hundreds of people have reportedly been detained as a series of demonstrations in support of jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny begins across Russia.

The gatherings, which police have declared illegal, are the first by Mr Navalny’s supporters since he was arrested last weekend on his return to Moscow, after spending five months in Germany recovering from novichok poisoning.

Police detain a man in Moscow. Pic: AP
Image:
Police detain a man in Moscow. Pic: AP

More than 200 people have been detained in central and eastern Russia because of the protests, according to monitoring group OVD-INFO, with more than 100 held in Moscow, according to a Reuters witness, the location for one of up to 70 marches this weekend.

There have been scuffles in the southeastern city of Khabarovsk, and videos also show people being taken away from a protest in Yakutsk, where people have been gathering in -50C temperatures, and one person lying on the ground, apparently injured, in Novosibirsk.

Other footage shows people being hit with batons in Orenburg and riot shields and tears gas being used in some cities.

Police detain a man  in Khabarovsk, Russia, during a protest against the jailing of Alexei Navalny. Pic: AP
Image:
Police detain a man in Khabarovsk during a protest against the jailing of Alexei Navalny. Pic: AP

Hundreds, possibly thousands, appear to have been taking part in rallies and marches in Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk.

There have also been reports that mobile phone and internet services in Russia have suffered outages as police
crack down on anti-Kremlin protesters.

Authorities sometimes interfere with communication networks to make it harder for protesters to get in touch with each other and the wider world online.

Protesters run away from police officers in Vladivostok,
Image:
Protesters run away from police officers in Vladivostok,

Six journalists have been held in St Petersburg, according to Avtozaklive.

Mr Navalny, 44, who is one of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics, blames Moscow for the attack that nearly killed him, although the Kremlin denies any involvement.

He is charged with breaking his bail conditions – and is facing a potential three-and-a half-year jail term if found guilty.

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Navalny supporters clash with Russian police

Protesters gathered in support of Mr Navalny in temperatures on -50C in Yakutsk. Pic: Ksenia Korshun/via REUTERS
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Protesters gathered in support of Mr Navalny in temperatures on -50C in Yakutsk. Pic: Ksenia Korshun/via REUTERS

Anyone who takes part faces charges of rioting, fines, problems at work, prison and even threats over child custody as the Russian state tries to crack down on the demonstrations, which could be the largest against Mr Putin since 2018.

Officials also enforced a crackdown in the run-up to the demonstrations, arresting members of Mr Navalny’s team, including his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh.

They launched an investigation after young Navalny supporters flooded TikTok with anti-Putin videos, pushing for people to support the action this weekend and using the using the hashtags #freenavalny and #23Jan.

The content has been viewed more than 300 million times.

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TikTok videos in support of Navalny

Anger mounted against Mr Putin this week after Mr Navalny’s team released a documentary exposing a vast and opulent palace built by Russia’s leader on the Black Sea coast.

The programme claims the complex – 39 times larger than Monaco – cost £1bn to build and was funded through illicit money.

It is said to have a casino, an underground ice hockey complex and a vineyard.

More than 60 million people have now viewed the Russian-language video on YouTube within three days of it being published.

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Navalny calls for protests over his arrest

On Friday, ahead of the weekend of planned protests, Mr Navalny issued a statement saying he wanted it known that he had no plans to take his own life in prison.

The arrest of Mr Navalny has attracted widespread criticism from Western leaders, sparking new tensions in the already strained relationship with the US.

Despite the plans for the protests, Mr Putin’s grip on power appears solid, with the 68-year-old regularly recording approval ratings of more than 60%, many times higher than those of Mr Navalny.

Protesters attending a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow
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Protesters attending a rally in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow

‘Our kids are being brainwashed’
Eyewitness by Diana Magnay, Moscow correspondent

The rally is not due to start until 2pm, but already here in Moscow, the police are making arrests and there are several hundred people around waiting.

It reminds me very much of the protests in the summer of 2019. There are huge numbers of press following each arrest. I haven’t seen any beatings yet, but the arrests are not pleasant.

Among those attending are Olga and Vladislav Sheglov, father and daughter.

Mr Sheglov told me: “I came here because I cannot live like this anymore, what they’re doing is not acceptable.

“I always tell myself we have the best country, but the worst government.”

His daughter Olga said: “Our kids are being brainwashed. You have families with low income and they have another view of politics.

Olga and Vladislav Sheglov
Image:
Olga and Vladislav Sheglov

“When we saw the Putin’s palace investigation, we were so shocked. We used to vote for him, but this was the last straw. We believe 150%, a million percent that Navalny was poisoned.”

Another person at the protest, 16-year-old Yaroslavl, who we are not naming fully because he’s 16, said: “There’ll probably be more detentions than normal because it’s such a big day.

“I’m a bit concerned, but so many people have come together to defend their own opinion and to defend Russia.

“I was told at school not to come, that they might have extra lessons today, but I ignored them. And my parents were even more serious about me not coming, but I ignored them too.”

He said that today everyone went out not for Navalny, but for themselves, to fight for their rights.



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Alexei Navalny supporters clash with police as mass protests expected across Russia | World News

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Police have clashed with protesters as series of demonstrations in support of jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny begins across Russia.

The gatherings, which police have declared illegal, are the first by Mr Navalny’s supporters since he was arrested last weekend on his return to Moscow, after spending five months in Germany recovering from novichok poisoning.

Dozens of people have been detained ahead of the protests, according to a monitoring group, and there have already been scuffles in the southeastern city of Khabarovsk, the location for one of up to 70 marches this weekend.

Videos also show people being taken away from a protest in Yakutsk, where people have been gathering in -50C temperatures.

Pic: Yulia Navalnaya
Image:
Alexei Navalny, pictured with his wife Yulia, was poisoned with novichok

Mr Navalny, 44, who is one of President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critics, blames Moscow for the attack that nearly killed him, although the Kremlin denies any involvement.

He is charged with breaking his bail conditions – and is facing a potential three-and-a half-year jail term if found guilty.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Navalny supporters clash with Russian police

They face charges of rioting, fines, problems at work, prison and even threats over child custody as the Russian state tries to crack down on the demonstrations, which could be the largest against Mr Putin since 2018.

Officials also enforced a crackdown in the run-up to the demonstrations, arresting members of Mr Navalny’s team, including his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh.

They have launched an investigation after young Navalny supporters flooded TikTok with anti-Putin videos, pushing for people to support the action this weekend and using the using the hashtags #freenavalny and #23Jan.

The content has been viewed more than 300 million times.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

TikTok videos in support of Navalny

Anger mounted against Mr Putin this week after Mr Navalny’s team released a documentary exposing a vast and opulent palace built by Russia’s leader on the Black Sea coast.

The programme claims the complex – 39 times larger than Monaco – cost £1bn to build and was funded through illicit money.

It is said to have a casino, an underground ice hockey complex and a vineyard.

More than 60 million people have now viewed the Russian-language video on YouTube within three days of it being published.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Navalny calls for protests over his arrest

On Friday, ahead of the weekend of planned protests, Mr Navalny issued a statement saying he wanted it known that he had no plans to take his own life in prison.

The arrest of Mr Navalny has attracted widespread criticism from Western leaders, sparking new tensions in the already strained relationship with the US.

Despite the plans for the protests, Mr Putin’s grip on power appears solid, with the 68-year-old regularly recording approval ratings of more than 60%, many times higher than those of Mr Navalny.



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