The Irish Centre For Bio-Ethical Reform was responsible for the excessively graphic images during the Eighth Amendment referendum campaign. Its director talks to Billy O’Riordan.
In a quiet leafy suburb of Clonmel, Co Tipperary, you will find the headquarters of the Irish Centre For Bio-Ethical reform. The ICBR came to the public’s attention in recent weeks thanks to its posters which contain graphic portraits of dead foetuses.
The director of the ICBR is Jean Simonis Engela. He is a softly spoken, courteous individual and is the public face of the organisation. He agreed to meet me in the centre of Clonmel for a rare face-to-face interview.
After some back and forth, he agreed to answer a range of questions by email. I began by asking Dr Engela about his background.
He was raised in South Africa and is married to an Irish woman, whose father is of Indian extraction. After completing his studies at the Royal College of Surgeons, he qualified in general practice in 2017.
He is insistent that the work of the ICBR is educational.
“The Irish Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform is a pro-life advocacy group that promotes prenatal justice and the right to life of preborn children through education and the development of innovative educational programmes,” says Dr Engela.
The ICBR has affiliates all over the world, including in the US, Britain, Canada, Sweden, Poland, Finland, and Netherlands. According to Dr Engela, “abortion is a global injustice and requires a global response”.
During the referendum, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar criticised the controversial posters used by the ICBR as “vile and counterproductive”.
“In the same leaders’ questions, Leo Varadkar also said he hoped the people would revolt against us,” counters Dr Engela.
He says he puts his faith in the Constitution, which offers people the right of free speech and sees this as “a core liberty”. He equates his work with activists who highlighted the injustices of the transatlantic slave trade.
“Social reformers who were liked were rarely effective and those who were effective were rarely liked,” he says.
Despite being active and visible during the Eighth Amendment referendum campaign, Dr Engela insists “the ICBR is not involved in political activity”. He says the organisation will continue to protest despite the referendum result.
“We shall continue to do so without any regard to any future decision,” he said.
I ask if this is the beginning of a long campaign.
“We are conducting long-term educational projects generally related to abortion well before any referendum was in view, and we will continue to do so without regard to any future decision,” says Dr Engela.
Despite the backlash, he insists his members conduct themselves in public with respect and courteousness.
But what is his motivation for his work and does he believe it is faith-based?
Dr Engela emphasises that the ICBR is a non-religious organisation.
“Though not required, many of the activists involved with us are people of faith,” he says. “That shouldn’t surprise us. Social reformers were often people of faith and so am I.”
I was curious to know if the graphic images on the ICBR’s posters have the same impact on him.
“We should be upset. It’s a sign of a functioning conscience. I continue to find them upsetting to look at. The photos show the reality. If we find abortion photos so upsetting, why would we support abortion practice?” he asks.
The extent of public upset often ends in anger. Anger aimed at the ICBR.
So how does Dr Engela cope with the hatred and vilification?
“Whether someone quietly comes over to voice their support or someone gives me the middle finger, I find both responses affirming precisely because it demonstrates that both individuals have a functioning conscience,” he says.
Asked how he felt towards women who have procured abortions, Dr Engela feels they have “been lied to about prenatal development by their teachers, the press, and the medical establishment”.
He says: “We strongly believe that post-abortive women are abortions’ second victim, and that abortion already punishes women with tragic severity without ever prosecuting them.
“We understand experientially that every woman who aborts knows that what she is doing is wrong — but few understand how wrong. The humanity of the child is systematically hidden from her by society. The inhumanity of abortion is methodically hidden from her by society.
“Women are lied to about prenatal development and abortion by their teachers, the press, and the medical establishment. The pro-life movement and even the church have unwittingly conspired with the abortion industry to hide the horror of abortion.
“We allow them to be lied to and then punish them for believing the lie? Where is the love in that betrayal?
“The Centres For Disease Control report that nearly half of all abortions are performed on women who have already had one or more previous abortions. Post-abortive women are, therefore, among those most at risk of aborting, and are, consequently, among those in greatest need of seeing our deeply disturbing abortion photos.”
So what next? Will Dr Engela and his group target GP surgeries?
“So you are aware, the Irish Centre For Bio-Ethical Reform is not involved in political activity related to a constitutional referendum. We are not a political organisation,” he says. “We don’t protest abortion. We don’t have to. We hold up a photo of an aborted baby and abortion protests itself.
“The reluctance to view abortion imagery compounds an already serious problem of physicians in Ireland and the UK [where thousands of abortions are performed annually on Irish women] failing to provide abortion information that is adequate to obtain informed consent.
“If unprofessional medical personnel will not disclose the truth about abortion, they are behaving disgracefully and dishonourably, and that responsibility then falls to lay campaigners — and a person’s resistance to information regarding a clinical procedure does not relieve the healthcare professional (or any person of conscience) of their obligation to provide that information, even over the objection of that person.”
Garda detectives took away their graphic posters from the city hall archway in Kilkenny , but had to return them to Dr. Engele.