In Gavin’s recent Explainer post on the new abortion regulations in Northern Ireland, one of things he notes is that the new regulations in Northern Ireland “arguably combine some of the most permissive elements of the existing British and Irish legislation.” For example, in Ireland, abortion is available on request until 12 weeks and requires one doctor to sign off. In Britain, a reason is technically required for abortion before 12 weeks (even if in practice this means nothing) and two doctors have to sign off. The NI legislation follows the Irish model here. On the other hand, after 12 weeks the British model requires that there be a risk greater than if the pregnancy were to continue (which is a very low bar) while the Irish model requires a serious risk to life or health. The NI legislation follows the British model here.
In my view, this is probably not a coincidence. I suspect that the regulations were specifically drafted this way due to the widespread view that otherwise women would “simply travel” to obtain an abortion. The argument is that in the context of abortion availability in a neighbouring jurisdiction, abortion bans (either in general, or under a specific set of circumstances, eg after a particular gestational age or in the case of a certain foetal condition) don’t actually prevent any abortions, but merely inflict added expense and trauma on the woman by “forcing” her to travel. This is a powerful argument. Ciara described in the first episode of our podcast how this argument made her feel like there was nothing to lose by removing legal protection for unborn babies: it wouldn’t cost any lives, but would make life easier for women, perhaps significantly so. Simon Coveney also expressed this view when he outlined why he supported repeal and the subsequent Irish legislation. This argument is powerful because it’s not supposed to rely on abortion being morally permissible: if it worked, it could be accepted by a person who was convinced that abortion was the unjustified killing of an innocent person.
However, this argument falls apart on closer inspection. To see why, consider a horrifying analogy. (1) Let’s suppose there is a group of people in Ireland who want to subject their daughters to the horrific violence of female genital mutilation (FGM). They are absolutely intent on doing so. In the absence of access to safe, legal FGM in an Irish hospital, they will either perform it themselves illegally in Ireland, or they will travel with their little daughters to another jurisdiction and subject them to this horrendous practice abroad, before returning to Ireland. Would any right-minded person consider this a valid argument for legalising and facilitating FGM in Ireland? Of course not.
I have heard pro-life people address the “travel” argument before, usually by saying that the fact that someone travels abroad to buy drugs or sex isn’t a good argument for legalising drugs or prostitution in Ireland. However, I think the FGM analogy is far closer to abortion. There are several reasons for this, but the most relevant reason here is because some people believe and argue that it is a good idea to legalise drugs or prostitution in their own right. Therefore, refuting the “travel” argument by referencing the fact that drugs or prostitution are legal elsewhere can muddy the waters. This is definitely not the case for FGM. When it comes to inflicting such horrific violence on an innocent child, everything in us screams against the very thought of legitimising this practice in any way – even in a hypothetical scenario where banning the practice did nothing to prevent it. (Not, for the record, the scenario that we think actually obtains).
We can see therefore that the argument for legalising abortion because abortions will happen anyway (just somewhere else) turns out to be yet another example of an argument that simply boils down to the basic question of whether abortion is right or wrong (or, if you like, neutral or wrong). If the unborn have no objective right to life, there is no argument for banning abortion, even if abortion is illegal everywhere else. And if the unborn do have an objective right to life, there is no argument for legal abortion, even if abortion is legal everywhere else.
Instead of simply plonking our abortion restrictions on the line that a neighbouring jurisdiction happens to draw, we should have an honest conversation about whether abortion is in itself justified. Once that question has been properly answered, an appropriate legislative and regulatory framework will naturally follow.
1. It’s incredibly important to note here that I am only comparing abortion and FGM in the following ways: a. They are both (on pro-life premises) forms of interpersonal violence. b. They raise similar issues in the context of legality and travel. I am not comparing and am certainly not equating the practices in any other respect.