This article appears in the Witness section of the Summer 2018 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

At the end of May, Ireland will hold a landmark referendum on abortion. Voters will be asked to consider a repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which gives an unborn foetus a right to life equal to that of its mother. The amendment was introduced in 1983 – also after a referendum. Before that, abortion was already illegal, but the change made it harder to terminate a pregnancy, even in cases where the mother’s life was at risk. The poll at the end of May comes as voters in the traditionally Roman Catholic, socially conservative country have shown increasingly liberal social attitudes. In 2015, Irish voters opted to legalise same-sex marriage.

The campaign over repealing the Eighth has been highly charged, with debate raging over fundamental questions such as a woman’s control over reproductive rights, and the moment that life begins for a foetus. As well as street protests and the trading of harsh words between Irish campaigners on both sides, there have been increasing concerns about foreign influence.

Recently, an ethics regulator in Ireland ordered two abortion rights groups – Amnesty International Ireland and the Abortion Rights Campaign – to return grants to George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. It said the money was a foreign political donation intended to affect the outcome of a referendum or election, and was therefore banned. So far, no anti-abortion groups have been asked to return overseas donations, despite reports that money is openly being raised – particularly in the US – to support those defending the Eighth Amendment.

Outside influences are nothing new to Ireland. The Roman Catholic Church has long been a major power in the country. In the 1983 referendum it was the main driver, and it successfully opposed a bid in 1986 to legalise divorce. In the intervening decades, however, the social and moral authority of Rome has waned in Ireland, not least due to repeated scandals over clerical child sexual abuse.

Yet, according to a recent report by the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, the Vatican’s network of influence in the continent is alive and well. The report details efforts by a Vatican-inspired professional advocacy network known as Agenda Europe to roll back human rights relating to sexual and reproductive health. The group formed in 2013 as a collection of 20 American and European campaigners who strategised “achievable goals” for overturning existing laws on issues such as the right to divorce, women’s access to contraception, assisted reproduction technologies or abortion, and equality for LGBT people. The initial group of campaigners formed a network, which has now attracted over 100 organisations from over 30 European countries. According to the report, Agenda Europe’s strategy is producing concrete results, such as the 2016 Polish bill banning abortion, bans on equal marriage in several Central European countries, and other similar developments across Europe.

It has set out a clear strategy: using the weapons of opponents against them, echoing opponents by framing issues in terms of “rights”, maligning opponents and institutions that don’t agree, and seeking to become respected at the international level to add legitimacy to its arguments. Although the group now includes Christians of all denominations, the report notes that the two people who originally set up the group “have close professional connections with the Holy See hierarchy”. Numerous senior Catholic clergy have attended Agenda Europe’s summits.

The Catholic Church has historically led the push against sexual and reproductive rights not just in Europe but around the world. Agenda Europe appears to be bringing that into the modern era. But their success is by no means guaranteed. As the European Parliamentary report concludes: “despite a finesse in recent organising, Agenda Europe represents the last embattled reactionary hold-outs of a society that is moving forward to a place they will hardly recognise. The most generous assessment one can make of Agenda Europe is that, at least, its ideas will not go down without a fight. Progressive actors should take heed that this fight is engaged and that social progress is not necessarily inevitable.”