Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, who initially opposed the government’s plan to legislate for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks before changing his mind.

Last week, we learned that 6,666 abortions took place in Ireland in 2019. Adding the 375 women who gave Irish addresses when getting abortions in England and Wales last year, there were over nineteen abortions per day either in Ireland or to a woman providing an Irish address. As we explained in our previous post, this represents an increase on 2018. Exactly how large an increase is difficult to say, but our calculations indicate it’s at least 38%. If we take the widely-cited pre-repeal pro-choice figure of 12 women per day having an abortion, it’s an increase of 61%; if we use Simon Harris’s estimate that three women per day obtained an illegal abortion in Ireland and add it to women getting abortions in England, Wales and the Netherlands, the increase is greater again – 75%.

A few days after the referendum, The Journal published a piece where they followed up with undecided voters and asked them how they had eventually voted. Every single one of them had voted Yes. I think there are lessons to be learned, even today, from this fact, but one thing about the article stuck out for me – not one person in the article wanted abortion to happen, as a matter of course. In fact, one respondent stated “If I see high stats in a few years of the numbers of people having abortions, I reckon I’ll regret voting Yes.”

It is my firm belief that these people are genuine, sincere and really struggled with their vote either way. In fact, Simon Coveney articulated this position in an OpEd for the Independent. He explained how his thinking had shifted on the issue, and why he had decided to support the then-proposed legislation. The article is worth reading in full, but Coveney made several claims that it’s worth examining in particular.

First of all, he claimed that the legislation “will not give unrestricted access to abortion at any point in pregnancy.” Coveney said he could support abortion up until twelve weeks if it is accompanied by “strict medical guidelines – resulting in a “clinical protocol” to be followed in every case when an abortion is requested” that “would require a doctor to lay out all information and options in an impartial way to a woman who requests an abortion.” However, such a protocol appears nowhere in the legislation allowing for abortion, nor does it appear in clinical guidelines for early termination of pregnancy. In fact, far from requiring the doctor to “lay out all information and options”, the guidelines state:

“Many women have decided to have a termination of pregnancy before seeking care, and this decision should be respected.”

According to the guidelines, the pre-termination consultation should exclusively focus on what to expect during the process of medical abortion. Counseling is available, but the clinician is not required to even to inform women of this fact.

Was Simon Coveney duped? Perhaps. Does he know or care? Well, the real question is whether the restrictions led to the result Coveney wanted. His article goes on to state that the three day reflection period was inserted into the legislation at his recommendation, and that “I believe a woman who proceeds with an abortion after receiving the support and information though a protocol such as I’ve described is very likely to have travelled to the UK or accessed a pill online in the absence of such a system being available in Ireland”. In other words, Coveney believed that all or almost all abortions that took place under the new legislation would have happened anyway.

This certainly seemed like a reasonable belief at the time. I know many good, honest, genuine people who shared this belief, and voted Yes on that basis. These people truly believed that legalising abortion would change where and how, but not whether, a woman had an abortion. They did not think the 8th Amendment saved any lives, but that it did cause women to suffer – it seemed like there was nothing to lose by getting rid of it. However, even the most generous estimate of our pre-2019 abortion figures has surely proven this wrong. There are a lot of abortions that happened because of Repeal which would not have happened otherwise. On our generous estimate of the pre-repeal abortion numbers, 1955 additional abortions took place in 2019. If we take an estimate like Simon Harris’s for pre-repeal abortion pills, possibly a lot more. It’s easy for numbers to become abstract, but each of those numbers is another life lost that would not have been absent repeal.

For the record, I hate that things turned out this way. I often quite like being wrong, because it’s an opportunity to learn, and right now, I wish I had been wrong with every fibre of my being. However, it seems those who claimed the 8th Amendment saved lives – many lives – were right. And now those who have been proven wrong have a choice.

Will you proceed without taking any notice of the fact that the number of abortions to Irish women has increased by at least 38%? Will you forget that this was a real fear you harboured when you went through the incredibly difficult process of deciding how to vote? 

Are you aware that the legislation underpinning abortion in Ireland is due to be reviewed next year? Do you think it should be changed? Do you think the clinical guidelines on termination of pregnancy should change? Have you any ideas  about how to make either of those things happen?

Do you think over seven thousand abortions is good enough? Or do you think we are still, after everything that has happened, failing women, not to mention their babies?

Are you willing to do anything about this?

Here at the Minimise Project, we think the abortion rate should be as low as possible, and certainly lower than it is now. We want to work with anyone who agrees with us on that. You might disagree with us on how low the rate should be eventually, but we can agree that it is currently too high – and, on the basis of last year’s figures, it is rising. We don’t want to just turn back the clock to the pre-repeal status quo – we want to go somewhere much better. Please reach out to us if you have any ideas on how to do that: how to provide real choices for pregnant women, how to end the stigmatisation of pregnancy and parenthood, how to get that figure under seven thousand and decreasing. We don’t claim to have all the answers; we need you. Please come and work with us to build a desperately-needed new culture of pregnancy and parenthood in Ireland.