An internal debate within the pro-life movement periodically rears its head. This debate centres on whether the removal of laws allowing abortion should happen incrementally, to achieve as much progress as is legislatively possible at that time (‘incrementalism’), or whether such changes should only happen all at once (‘absolutism’, ‘immediatism’, or sometimes the ‘abolitionist’ position). 

This debate has become relevant to the Irish abortion situation in recent weeks, as a member of the NI Assembly has introduced a bill to incrementally change the north’s abortion laws. The laws which would potentially be amended are the Regulations imposed upon the north in 2020 by the Westminster House of Commons.

If passed, the bill will amend the existing Regulations to remove ‘severe fetal impairment’ i.e. non-fatal disabilities, as a grounds for abortion. Currently, across the UK abortion is legal up till birth if the unborn child has a serious but non-fatal disability. In England and Wales late-term abortions are carried out on babies with conditions such as club foot and cleft palate. 

The proposed bill in the NI Assmebly has been welcomed by a number of pro-life groups (here, here and here) and disability rights campaigners, including Down Syndrome activist Heidi Crowter

However, other pro-life groups have expliticly comdemned the bill:

i) CBRNI described the bill as ‘disastrous’, and have elaborated on their reasoning for doing so in this video here (especially at 55mins-60mins). CBRNI included the following astonishing sentences on a status on their Facebook page:

‘This bill will essentially legitimise 99.993% of all abortions, signing the death warrant for tens of thousands of children over decades to come. It must be resisted by pro life people everywhere… Save lives by killing this bill.’

ii) SPUC has also said the effects of the bill could be ‘disastrous’ and called for it to be withdrawn from the Assembly. SPUC’s Northern Ireland officer justified this position with the following arguments:

‘Such a change would be merely symbolic. But despite being statistically insignificant, it would lend democratic legitimacy to the 99.993% of abortions which would fall outside the scope of the Bill— legitimacy that they would not otherwise enjoy. It could also seriously undermine the chances of repealing the radical legislation imposed by Westminster by creating the false impression that it is less extreme than it really is. Worst of all, it would compromise the unconditional right to life by effectively authorising a lethal form of discrimination against babies considered to be unworthy of legal protection’

iii) Let Them Live (LTL) have made the claim that: 

‘Incrementalist bills don’t work. Look at the UK and America, with half a century of regulating murder, and ever increasing numbers of babies killed in the womb. The only way to end abortion is to fully abolish it. And that’s what we’d encourage you to tell your pro-life MLAs.’

We commend and share the passion which these groups have for unborn children’s right to life. But we believe that their strategy in relation to this bill is misguided in its entirety. The reasoning offered by pro-life critics in their condemnation of this bill is confused, weak and unconvincing.

This blog offers pro-life people seven reasons why this proposed bill is a good first step to achieve justice for unborn children in Northern Ireland.

1) The bill puts abortion proponents on the defensive

Any discussion of Paul Givan MLA’s bill requires abortion proponants to address the prickly question of why abortion for non-fatal disabilities up till birth is legitimate or acceptable. Requiring pro-choice advocates to defend their position in extreme situations like this is to be welcomed, when so often their views are simply tacitly accepted. To have this discussion doesn’t take away from the fact that all abortions are tragedies for at least the unborn child, and often the mother too.

In most abortion debates, it is usually the pro-lifers who are on the defensive, having to address the ‘hard cases’ such as the permissability of abortion after rape, or a diagnoses of ‘fatal foetal abnormality’. (This is notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of abortions don’t happen for these reasons at all.)

The bill should be welcomed because it highlights the disturbing logical conclusions for the pro-choice position: that abortion for disabilities up to birth is somehow acceptable.

2) The bill actually undermines the imposed abortion regulations (as opposed to legitimising them)

This bill is the first legislative attack upon the Westminster-imposed abortion Regulations (apart from the symbolic vote in the Assembly last year). Challenging and attacking the existing abortion Regulations is without doubt something to support. 

It is hard to understand how such a move could be perceived as legitimising the Regulations, when it explicitly seeks to amend a portion of them. The bill offers no implicit or explicit support for any other aspect of the Regulations. Silence with regards to the rest of the Regulations cannot be interpreted as tacit support for them, especially given that the bill’s very sponsor (Paul Givan) has previously condemned the Regulations in their entirety

This bill is not an attempt to legitimise the Regulations, in contrast it undermines them by attacking a discrete aspect of them. 

3) The bill highlights the injustices faced by pre-born children with disabilities, which is an inherently pro-life thing in itself

Irrespective of the bill’s impact upon abortion, it highlights the discrimination faced by both born and pre-born people with disabilities. 

Groups like Don’t Screen Us Out have sought to bring the issue of disability discrimination and abortion into the public consciousness in recent years. If being pro-life means highlighting injustice anywhere (including before and after birth), then the public awareness bills like this create is an inherently good thing. 

The UK’s abortion law specifically singles out unborn babies with disabilities as having even fewer rights than other unborn children. This is abhorrent, and discriminatory. The provisional solution being sought to alleviate this problem in NI is not to extend abortion rights, but to restrict them. This is something to be welcomed. 

4) The justifications for opposing this bill are incoherent 

Whilst no doubt their motivations are well intentioned, the justifications offered by CBRNI, SPUC and LTL in opposing this bill are weak at best, and worryingly misguided at worst. 

When CBRNI say, ‘Save lives by killing this bill’, they offer no rationale whatsoever for this statement. Even if it does result in only a very small number of lives saved, this bill will ultimately reduce the number of late term abortions on unborn babies in NI. That is what it is designed to do, so it should be welcomed.

It is very difficult to see how ‘killing this bill will result in less abortions and less lives saved. Very probably ‘killing this bill will in fact lead to more abortions, as it will maintain the current widespread grounds for abortion in NI.

It’s of course conceivable though – and presumably what the groups mentioned above are thinking about – that leaving all the worst bits of the Regulations in could force an ‘all or nothing’ choice for legislators between total repeal of the Regulations and leaving them as they are. Total repeal would presumably save more lives than Givan’s bill would. Forcing such an all-or-nothing repeal vote on the Regulations is indeed the goal of these groups.

This scenario is conceivable: but it’s vanishingly unlikely. Any ‘all or nothing’ choice will in the present political climate be resolved in favour of leaving the Regulations untouched. Abortion is an issue of low political salience: people tend not to vote on it and polls suggest that most voters rank it very low in their list of priorities. A long-run effort needs to be made to change that: but opposing the bill and leaving the Regulations completely unchanged will not help that effort.

When SPUC states that the bill is ‘effectively authorising a lethal form of discrimination against babies considered to be unworthy of legal protection’ they fail to acknowledge that this bill contains no positive authorisation of any abortion provision whatsoever. It solely removes aspects of the existing abortion Regulations. It is flatly wrong to suggest otherwise.  

If any pro-life groups have concerns about this bill – concerns that might cause confusion for ordinary pro-lifers – it would be helpful if those worries could be clearly reasoned and articulated in a factual manner, and not reduced to spreading misleading slogans and arguments on social media and at online events. 

5) This bill demonstrates a path forward for ultimately abolishing abortion in Northern Ireland

If this bill passes and becomes law, it will be a template for how further erosion of abortion access in NI can occur. 

If the bill doesn’t pass, or is withdrawn (which is what SPUC have specifically called for) it will demonstrate to our pro-choice opponents and society at large, that not even a small aspect of NI’s abortion provision can be amended, thus cementing further the Westminster-imposed abortion regime. 

The immediate abolition of a societal injustice is a near impossible thing to do. William Wilberforce knew this truth in his decades long struggle to outlaw slavery. Absolutists/abolitionists often adopt Wilberforce as a hero in their own cause, yet often overlook the fact that for Wilberforce, the process of abolishing the slave trade included:

-legally improving conditions for slaves;

-limiting the legally permissible number of slave that could be shipped; and 

-legally prohibiting the slave trade in certain parts of the world.

As Muireann mentioned in a previous blog, ‘Every life truly matters, which means if we can do anything to save even one baby from abortion, we should do so without hesitation.’ This Bill is a way for such a change to occur, and we support it wholeheartedly. 

6) Incrementalist bills are successful at reducing abortion

Contrary to the claim by Let Them Live that ‘Incrementalist bills don’t work’, there is a considerable body of academic evidence which suggests that incrementalist bills succeed in reducing abortion rates. Of course, reducing abortion is never the ultimate end goal, but it is certainly a core part of the process of making the practice unthinkable. 

For example, Prof Michael J New’s 2011 study in the State Politics and Policy Quarterly indicates that in the US a 

‘cross-sectional data set provides evidence that several types of state-level anti-abortion legislation result in statistically significant declines in both the abortion rate and the abortion ratio. Furthermore, a series of natural experiments provide further evidence that abortion restrictions are correlated with reductions in the incidence of abortion.’

Also, when the evidence is considered, the following Let Them Live claim is misleading at best and false at worst: ‘Look at the UK and America, with half a century of regulating murder, and ever increasing numbers of babies killed in the womb.’

The statistics themselves tell a different story:

When it comes to the USA, the abortion rate and ratio has actually declined considerably in the last few decades, in part because the pro-life movement firmly adopted an incrementalist approach. Whilst in the UK, an incrementalist approach only received lukewarm support from pro-lifers, with SPUC encouraging an absolutist stand. Since the Abortion Act 1967 there has been very little progress on the abortion issue, and the number of abortions are now at an all-time high. If pro-life organisations were more enthusiastic in their support for David Alton’s attempts to lower the gestational limit in the 1980s, and other such initiatives, then perhaps more lives would have been saved. In recent times, Right to Life UK have spearheaded some potential breakthrough legislative change.

7) Bona Fide attempts from pro-life legislators should be welcomed and encouraged

If even the smallest attempt from our politicians at pushing our abortion laws in a pro-life direction is met with condemnation from pro-lifers, then how can we expect them to be even braver in the future?

It must surely be bewildering to our pro-life public representatives for a simple pro-life Bill such as this to be met with outright hostility from their own supporters.  


Despite the claims of some groups, there are many legitimate reasons – indeed very good reasons – to support this bill. Our pro-life advocacy should never cease until our society becomes a place where unborn children’s lives are respected and pregnant mothers are fully supported, but until that day comes, incrementalist bills like this should be welcomed and supported. 


Edit notes:
1) Under heading #4 we added the following phrase “Forcing such an all-or-nothing repeal vote on the Regulations is indeed the goal of these groups.” in order to clarify the position of the groups we criticise. (26/02/21)
2) Under heading #4 we removed the word ‘disingenuous’ and replaced it with ‘flatly wrong’, in order to assume good faith on the part of the groups we criticise in this blog. (26/02/21)

Dom0803, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons