Last week was the third anniversary of the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Since then we’ve got a much better picture of what Ireland’s abortion laws look like in practice. We’ve also heard a lot of calls for the scope of those laws to be expanded, making abortion access even easier. Sydney Calkin’s piece at The Conversation is a pretty representative example of the restrictions pro-choice campaigners are calling to have removed from the law. For example, Calkin argues that children with ‘serious fetal abnormality’ need not have their life be that shortened in order for that abnormality to count as a grounds for an abortion.
After the 12-week limit passes, someone who wishes to terminate a pregnancy with serious foetal abnormality can only do so if two doctors agree that the diagnosis means the foetus is likely to die before or within 28 days of birth. The law imposes rigid cut-off points on subjective diagnoses, in practice creating further incentives for doctors to err on the side of conservatism and forcing women with non-viable pregnancies to travel abroad.
There’s an awful lot going on in this short paragraph. Note that talk of ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ has been replaced by talk of ‘serious foetal abnormality’. While it’s great to see people moving on from a term that appears less in the medical literature than ‘funny feeling’, the suggestion here is that any ‘serious’ abnormality is enough to justify abortion whether immediately fatal or not.
There’s also the ascription of the serious abnormality to the pregnancy rather than the fetus. There is no term here that refers to an individual being. There is a state – pregnancy – that is described as having a “serious foetal abnormality”. “Foetal” is here an adjective describing a certain kind of abnormality with a pregnancy. The effect is to dehumanise.
Finally, note the return of talk of women being forced to travel abroad. What Calkin helpfully makes clear is that the logic of ‘forced to travel abroad’ cuts against any abortion restriction that makes Ireland’s regime more restrictive than the least restrictive abortion law in any country within practial travel distancel. If any given abortion procedure, for any given reason, at any given stage of pregnancy is legal in some other jurisdiction but not in Ireland, than a woman that wants to get that kind of abortion for that reason at that stage will have to travel abroad to that jurisdiction to get it. Thus any restriction at all that falls short of the least restrictive law in, say, Western Europe, will be a case of ‘forcing women to travel.’ Let’s say you think that the UK’s law allowing abortion up to birth on the grounds of Down Syndrome (see this article from BBC confirming that that is the law) is bad. What you’re really doing in opposing that law’s extension to Ireland is forcing any woman who wants to have an abortion after 12 weeks on the grounds of Down Syndrome to travel to the UK.
Calkin’s piece goes through a variety of other ways in which she thinks Ireland’s current law is too restrictive: it has mandatory waiting periods, it imposes criminal penalties on doctors who perform illegal abortions (though here are no penalties for women).
One reason why you might buy Calkin’s argument in the piece is if you think that all these restrictions really do amount to ‘forcing a woman to travel.’ In other words, if you think that anyone who wants to get an abortion will do so regardless of the law. In that case, any restriction on abortion won’t actually prevent any abortions, it will just inflict additional inconvenience at best and trauma at worst on the women seeking them.
I think we should in general be much more sceptical of arguments of the form “no point in banning or restricting x, people will do it anyway”. If laws generally didn’t work to change people’s behaviour at least to a significant extent, we wouldn’t have laws. It’s almost always the case that if you legally restrict something, you get less of it.
With abortion in Ireland, though, we have additional data. We can look at the effect on abortion rates that repealing the Eighth Amendment and bringing in the current legislation had. Minimise has done just that in a series of blog posts.
Our conclusion in those posts? There’s been a dramatic increase in Ireland’s abortion rate since repeal: at least 1995 additional abortions per year, or an increase of 38%. That’s four to five additional abortions every day. We deliberately went for very generous estimates about the number of pre-repeal abortions in Ireland that weren’t officially recorded: most notably the number of abortions done using imported abortion pills. If you go with less generous estimates of pre-repeal abortion pill use, such as those used by pro-choice sources, the increase after repeal looks even bigger.
Our pre-repeal abortion pill estimates were deliberately very generous: much more generous than estimates made by Together for Yes and Simon Harris’s Department of Health. Based on the evidence we have, there’s no reason to think that large numbers of abortion pills weren’t being accounted for.
To be clear: our last blog’s estimate of the rise in abortions post-repeal () was and is a conservative estimate. Every time we had to assume or extrapolate, we tried to choose a reasonable figure that would be more favourable to the claims the pro-choice side makes, and less favourable to the claims the pro-life side makes.
If Together for Yes or Simon Harris were right (and they may well have been) the increase would be even greater: either a 48% or a 75% increase, respectively. If we suspend just one of our generous assumptions (that all the pills delivered by Women on Web went to women in the Republic and none went to Northern Ireland), then we land upon an increase of 48% as well.
By all means, let’s have a conversation about what that increase means, and what to do about it. But that there has been a large increase in abortion numbers now looks very hard to dispute.
We go into vastly more detail in those three posts, so please click through if you’re interested in our methodology. But it’s clear that Ireland’s abortion ban worked for its intended purpose: saving the lives of many pre-born children. Without it, the number of abortions went up, and dramatically. After doing our statistics analyses, Muireann wrote the following post to repealers who reluctantly voted Yes because they believed the legal restrictions weren’t saving lives.
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?
If we loosened the law further along the lines that pro-choice campaigners are asking for, what we’d get is even more abortions. Instead, a coalition of No voters and reluctant, good-faith repealers should be looking to tighten the current law and help mitigate the large increase in the abortion rate brought about by repeal.