This blog post is part of The Minimise Project’s Pro-life Political Perspectives series, an ongoing series in which people of various political positions make the case for how opposition to abortion fits into their political worldview. The views of the writers in this series are not those of the Minimise Project as a group: over time we hope to feature people writing from wildly different and even opposed political outlooks.
Material considerations drive many abortions and therefore the pro-life movement should concern itself with economic issues. In this contribution, Máirtín argues that the Irish pro-life movement must be willing to look for and support alternatives to the dominant economic model as part of its overall strategy.
In the last week of January 2021, local and national media provided coverage of housing difficulties facing two families in Granard, Co. Longford. The families, from Syria, are in this country as part of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme. The families have been living in two apartments owned by Longford County Council since late 2019. Problems with the apartments’ heating, electrical and ventilation systems led to a mother, then six months pregnant, sleeping in a car with her children during a bout of freezing weather. The faulty heating system also resulted in high bills that the families could not afford to pay.
The matter gained publicity when social entrepreneur Ruairí McKiernan, a former member of the Council of State, drew attention to it on Twitter. McKiernan maintained that ‘[e]lectronic records will reveal that the council’s housing department was first contacted about these issues [the problems with the apartments’ heating, ventilation etc.] over a year ago.’ Following a build-up of media coverage, Longford County Council agreed to undertake immediate work on the apartments, including the installation of a new heating system, and to share the cost of the aforementioned heating bills with housing association Respond.
As Muireann, Ciara and Ben have previously written, ‘we can’t protect unborn babies without protecting their mothers’. The pro-life issue is a social justice issue and it is intimately connected with other social justices issues, like housing and people’s quality of life. A pregnant mother resorting to sleeping in a car in freezing temperatures is a clear example of her and her unborn child not being protected.
The failure to ensure decent housing for people is characteristic of Ireland’s dysfunctional housing market. This writer contends that housing is an immediate pro-life concern, both because of everyone’s basic need for housing in order to have a chance at leading a decent life and because of the central role of housing in ensuring that families can bring children into this world with the confidence that they will be able to care for them. It is reasonable to assume that in a context where (i) housing is out of reach or homelessness a real possibility for a pregnant woman and (ii) abortion is freely available, abortions are more likely than in a context where, all else being equal, a pregnant woman has secure housing. The socio-economic context in which we live matters hugely to the decisions that each of us makes. In other words, socio-economic forces set the parameters of people’s agency. No matter how much a woman may wish to continue a pregnancy to term, under the current economic framework market forces will always be strong factors in determining her ‘choice’ as to whether she does so or ‘chooses’ an abortion instead.
Housing difficulties in Ireland are, as is well documented, emblematic traits of our post-crash society. The issue of housing affects us all. It is a considerable source of worry and/or financial woes to varying extents for at least hundreds of thousands, but more likely millions, of Irish people. The same week that the media spotlight fell on the Granard situation, the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland published its annual report. According to SCSI, the cheapest apartment in Dublin would require a buyer to have an annual income of €96,000 and be able to pay a deposit of €37,500. An average couple’s income is €88,0000, making most people non-contenders for a ‘cheap’ apartment in their own capital.Also in the final week of January, Oxfam published its annual report on inequality. Oxfam found that the wealth of Ireland’s billionaires increased by more than €3 billion in 2020 and that financial losses faced by the world’s 1,000 richest people due to COVID-19 were recouped within 9 months. Material inequality within states and on a global level, with utter privation on one end of the scale and unimaginable wealth in few hands on the other, is the context for all the questions of our time, including abortion. We cannot ignore our context.
A lethal combination: ‘Free’ market economics and freedom to ‘choose’
The combination of ‘free’ market economics, with all its insecurity, precarity and emphasis on reducing production costs (e.g. wages), and freely available, on-demand abortion ‘services’ is a recipe for channelling women to make a ‘choice’ they may otherwise have never contemplated. Therefore, ‘free’ market economics and abortion-on-demand make for a potentially lethal mix for huge numbers of unborn humans. Market forces, especially in the absence of legal protections for unborn humans, have substantial power as at least contributory, if not primary, factors in bringing about abortions. There is a coherence to consumer-centric ‘free’ market economics operating as the backdrop to ‘choice’-centric abortion-on-demand. Economic contexts shape and channel human decision-making. This argument should not be misunderstood as a bid to downplay the role of morality in the issue of abortion, but rather viewed as an exhortation that we, as best as we can, should utilise material resources and policy options to make it much easier for people to do what is right and harder to do what is wrong.
The pro-life movement (PLM) is right to pursue both incremental and comprehensive undermining of abortion-on-demand in judicial and legislative spheres. In parallel, another strand of the pro-life strategy should be the pursuit of measures designed to broaden the spread of economic power, and raise our society’s median standard of living and quality of life. If it is acknowledged that the pressures of the ‘free’ market and abortion-on-demand make a potentially lethal mix for the unborn, then both the provision of abortion and the economic factors that underlie many abortions must be confronted to (i) minimise the number of unborn lives lost to abortion and (ii) ensure a higher minimally acceptable quality of life for all. Pro-life should mean pro-a minimally acceptable quality of life, not least because a pregnant woman would be less likely to be pushed towards ‘choosing’ abortion if giving birth did not carry the risk, for example, of becoming homeless or being impoverished. That is why it is logical to place tackling poverty and raising median living standards at the centre of the pro-life agenda.
Our use of economic tools has the potential to save lives
The Irish PLM should pay serious attention to the role played by state economic policy in determining whether we get closer to or further removed from reaching our objectives, chief among which is minimising the number of lives lost to abortion. The toolbox for reaching our objectives should be wide-ranging and a large compartment of the toolbox should be dedicated to economic tools. To neglect economics would be to have a situation where possible pro-life gains made in respect of the Termination of Pregnancy (TOP) Act would fall short of achieving optimum impact if socio-economic causal factors of abortion remain static or worsen. Similarly, setbacks or even just stagnation on the legislative front would be compounded in effect by the continuation or escalation of economic policies that push women towards ‘choosing’ abortion. We need economic policies aimed at minimising the abortion rate, just as much as we need legislative change and practical supports for individual women and families aimed at the same thing.
Being in a position to utilise impactful economic tools means holding power in important organisations, most importantly state institutions and especially government itself. Wielding power in such places means winning political power and then retaining it. The Irish PLM focuses much energy already on the political sphere, however, to my mind, there has been insufficient attention on economics in our movement’s political focus. The movement is correctly focused on the important matter of abortion legislation, but we need to see the whole chessboard. The attention given to abortion legislation is fully understandable, indeed the movement has been right to prioritise efforts on the legislation in the lead-up to the first legislative review that will undoubtedly be used as an opportunity by pro-choice Oireachtas members to expand the scope of state’s abortion regime. But, the movement should expand its horizon beyond the narrow scope of the TOP Act because factors in addition to waiting and gestational limits on procuring abortions will continue to determine the number of lives lost to abortion. Those other factors are chiefly material, they are chiefly economic.
Unfortunately, abortion-on-demand in Ireland, north and south, is unlikely to be ended in the short or medium term. The immediate priority in political terms for the PLM is the Department of Health’s upcoming review of the TOP Act. It is difficult to envisage, considering current parliamentary arithmetic and pressures, even minor positive developments, such as the administration of pain relief for babies in advance of their being aborted, arising from this review. Indeed the review represents a real threat of ending the current three-day reflection period and an extension of abortion-on-demand beyond the 12-week period, among other stated aims of pro-choice campaigners. In the north, as in the south, political momentum has been with the pro-choice side in recent years. Success in the early stages for Paul Givan’s Bill to ban abortions on the grounds of disability after 24 weeks gestation indicates that perhaps pro-choice momentum in Stormont has begun to be curtailed. Even if Givan’s very welcome Bill passes, much work remains to be done.
So, while the PLM in the twenty-six counties is right to strive to gain ground and, at a minimum, not cede any in relation to the TOP Act, the cause of saving lives demands that the movement expands its political focus to economic matters. Doing so will mean championing causes that the movement has typically viewed as tangential at best. Instead of matters like the introduction of a living wage and a constitutional right to collective bargaining being perceived as only loosely connected or even irrelevant to the pro-life cause, such matters should become integral to the movement’s strategy and outlook. Most pro-life people realise that the removal of the right to life of the unborn from the Irish Constitution means that there is a long struggle ahead. This long post-8th Amendment struggle will in a sense be a permanent struggle because, as the removal of the constitutional right to life has shown, no gain made is ever guaranteed nor is any measure, even the constitutional enshrinement of a right, by itself fully comprehensive in effect, as we have seen. There will be no standalone silver bullet.
The pro-life necessity for a multi-front struggle
Any broad ideological struggle, such as ours, has to be pursued on many fronts if its adherents are serious about their aims, that includes fronts that have rarely, if ever, been previously considered. This is especially the case where overall conditions are not conducive to success and the forces ranged against a struggle are stronger and better resourced than the struggle’s proponents. The PLM needs to be active on several fronts; where setbacks are suffered on one front, advances can be made on others. We need to avoid a situation where a blow in one area translates as a crippling blow to the overall objective, and we need to look to make gains wherever possible. Pursuing objectives on a spread of fronts will lessen the impact of losses suffered on a single one, as well as open new opportunities for advances. The ‘all the eggs in one basket’ approach, where one area is the unquestioned preeminent sphere of struggle for the movement, is not a template for future success, as the ramifications of the 2018 referendum make clear. The socio-economic sphere is crucial to furthering our aims, we cannot afford to neglect it or underestimate its multifaceted importance. That sphere has to be fully integrated into the PLM’s outlook.
The Irish PLM should be engaged in the following overlapping, but distinct areas: (1) TOP Act and related legislative matters, (2) socio-economic dimensions of abortion, (3) practical supports for pregnant and new mothers and their families, (4) building political power, (5) influencing the public and (6) assisting, where possible, the advancement of pro-life individuals in third-party organisations.
In the long term, success will be conditional on the movement fully grasping the importance of economics’ role in shaping politics, the law and culture. Acquiring economic tools to significantly advance our objectives is clearly linked to winning political power, and winning political power requires the development and promotion of an economic dimension to the movement. Any economic dimension should have as its base a programme of measures that would be pursued when pro-life parties and politicians obtain political power, and these measures would be aimed at significantly reducing the economic causal factors for abortion. While still in opposition, pro-life politicians should seek to exert pressure on government to alter existing economic policies and initiate new ones, with the aim of reducing the abortion rate. One positive aspect of this approach would be that policies aimed at enhancing people’s quality of life, such as the Aontú proposal to introduce child benefit payments for pregnant mothers, would likely attract support from at least some politicians who are pro-choice but also willing to work for objectives that we share in common e.g. reducing poverty. A vital spin-off of such policies would be to affect a reduction in the abortion rate while broadening the appeal of pro-life politicians.
Furthermore, the economic dimension to the PLM would also fulfil an important strategic role for the movement by making the pro-life cause more relevant to the general public (which, as is evident from 2016 and 2020 election exit poll results, does not view the abortion issue with much concern). To that end, the movement should advocate positions that are of economic benefit to the broad sweep of ordinary people. Possible future attacks on workers’ rights, such as the undermining of the right to join a trade union, for example, should be opposed by the PLM. The movement should initiate forward-thinking campaigns too, such as a campaign for financial supports for stay-at-home parents.
Pro-life organisations should also join pre-existing campaigns with goals aimed at enhancing people’s quality of life and vindicating human dignity, such as the campaign for payment of student nurses. In the same vein, the movement should have supported the successful trade union-led campaign to end zero-hour contracts. As counter intuitive as this may sound, I believe that the PLM has to go beyond talking about abortion in a single-issue sense if we are to have a realistic chance of minimising the abortion rate. That does not mean that we stop talking about abortion (we should continue to talk about it and the lives lost because of it) but the horizon must be expanded so that due regard is afforded to the material conditions under which people have to make their ‘choices’, the material conditions upon which many ‘decisions’ to abort are based. Again, this is not to remove morality from the issue of abortion, but to make it easier for people to do the right thing.
Lessons from the austerity era (2009-2016): Building relevance and relatability
My view is that the PLM made a mistake by not involving itself, as a movement, in the wide-ranging campaigns against austerity in the 2009 to 2016 period. No doubt many pro-life people took part in anti-austerity campaigns, such as protesting against hospital capacity reductions and boycotting water bills, but pro-life organisations stayed mute on austerity as if all that was going on, from government decisions to widespread public opposition, had no bearing on the movement’s raison d’être and the societal context within which pro-life organisations operate. As long as the 8th Amendment remained in place and election candidates signed what have proven, in far too many cases, to be worthless pledges to uphold the right to life of the unborn, the movement in general appeared content to retain trust in a political system that was quickly losing the trust of large swathes of the population.
There are two points to make here. First, in my view, pro-life organisations should have joined anti-austerity campaigns and forthrightly opposed measures taken by governments to make ordinary people pay for banking debt because, very straightforwardly, squeezing people’s living standards impacts on their ability to provide for their families. If people see that they are unlikely to be able to afford the cost of a child as they lose their job, public services are slashed, public financing of childcare supports are undermined and maybe the family home is repossessed, the prospect of recourse to abortion logically increases. This is not dissimilar to how financial pressure, such as evictions, features as a factor in some suicides.
The pro-life position in the austerity era would have been to oppose attacks on public services and introductions of charges that took no account of people’s ability to pay, e.g. water charges. That the PLM did not strenuously oppose Labour’s Joan Burton’s 2011 changes to the One Parent Family payment, which cut-off eligibility of single parents to receive the payment once his/her youngest child turns seven (down from 18/22, depending on whether an adult-child was enrolled in third-level education), speaks to the movement’s non-engagement with even issues only a couple of degrees removed from abortion in its narrowest sense. That pro-life groups since the 2018 referendum have greatly enhanced their efforts to provide pregnant women and mothers with important practical supports indicates that the PLM in general, at least now, understands the link between material conditions and abortions. The logical follow-on step is to advocate for policies that ensure women are not left in situations where they are dependent on individuals’ or organisations’ goodwill because government policies and priorities have made or left them vulnerable.
Second, in my assessment, the non-participation of the movement in anti-austerity campaigns amounted to a strategic error. The movement should have made explicit the connection between the universal right to life and dignity of all people, for which we stand, with the efforts of masses of citizens determined to stop hospital down-sizing, cuts to public services and worsening job conditions etc. This would have made the PLM and its message relatable and relevant to ordinary people in their struggles. Instead, the movement, as an entity, stayed away, making it easier in the course of the 2018 referendum for pro-choice advocates to portray the PLM as aloof and unconcerned with the struggles of people in their daily lives. Had pro-life organisations meaningfully stood in support of citizens opposing hospital ward closures, for example, the PLM would have been much better placed to strike a genuine and lasting chord with communities across Ireland that were suffering from years of austerity, all the more important given the occurrence of the abortion referendum two/three years after the height of anti-austerity campaigning.
Further, had pro-life organisations built credibility as being opposed to austerity, they would have had a strong case to join and shape the agenda of the Right2Change (R2C) campaign, comprising several trade unions and political parties. The absence of pro-life organisations from the R2C campaign allowed pro-choice advocates to ensure the R2C programme included a commitment to remove the 8th Amendment and legislate for abortion, hitching the pro-choice goal to the broad appeal of the R2C’s economic programme. In addition to missing an important practical opportunity to stymie the pro-choice agenda in the R2C setting, the PLM’s absence also amounted to a missed opportunity to highlight the incoherence between an economically left-wing outlook and pro-choice ideology. Thus, in more ways than one the movement’s non-mobilisation against austerity was a serious lost opportunity.
A lesson from the austerity years is that the PLM should develop an openness to populism, that is, solidarity with ordinary people who face a range of challenges and tribulations, which more often than not stem from government policy. We do not have to wait until the next crash to think seriously about the lessons of the last one from a political-economic perspective. Indeed it would be a mistake to wait. Now is the time to pursue the twin goals of (i) employing economic levers to minimise the abortion rate and (ii) broadening the PLM’s political appeal.
Where stances and energy spent on political-economic matters both advance pro-life objectives and strategically strengthen (or at least not impinge) the movement’s trajectory, pro-life organisations would be wise to consider issue-areas that may have too often been viewed as being outside a narrow anti-abortion remit and pursue a range of relevant staging post goals.