(Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay)
Leaks are coming thick and fast from the three-year review into the abortion legislation. If these leaks are to be believed, the review, authored by barrister Marie O’Shea, is making extreme recommendations. I don’t just mean that in a “well, pro-lifers like to call every bit of pro-choice legislation extreme” way: I mean that I’m honestly surprised by how out-there some of the proposals are. For example, the Irish Times reports that
[A] major recommendation could see the removal of the existing criminalisation measures against medical practitioners, which is a feature of the existing law. At present, doctors face up to 14 years in prison if they provide abortion care outside the specific circumstances laid out in the law.
If the government were to decriminalise abortion at any stage during pregnancy for any reason, it would be a complete torpedoing of any of the promises the Yes side made during the referendum, and would make Ireland an outlier in Europe. It would be making the legislation about as unrestrictive as it could possibly be.
Interestingly, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar seems to recognise this. The Times quotes him:
Mr Varadkar said he would “be reluctant and uncomfortable” to make changes to the legislation enacted after the 2018 referendum given he had assured people in the campaign there would be safeguards in place regarding the provision of abortion in Ireland. “When I went out and others went out to look for a ‘Yes’ vote we said that there would be safeguards and that included things like the waiting period, things like the protection of conscientious objections,” said Mr Varadkar, speaking at an event in Cork.
“But as the Taoiseach who put the proposal to the people to repeal the Eighth, who went and campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in the interests of women’s health and giving women a choice over what happens to their bodies, I did so on the basis there were safeguards and protections.”
He said he had campaigned for a situation in which abortion was “safe, legal and rare”.
Now, this could be a kite-flying exercise. The review will recommend insane changes that remove most meaningful restrictions that still exist in the legislation, and then the government will implement some of them and pat itself on the back for being moderate. But let’s take Varadkar at his word. Reducing the abortion rate is something that we at the Minimise Project deeply believe in, it’s right in our name. That’s a goal that pro-choice people of goodwill should be able to get behind as well: lots of people who supported repeal would agree with Varadkar’s statement.
But if that’s really the goal, making the legislation more permissive at this stage is a deeply strange move. The line during the referendum was that women were getting abortions in the UK anyway, and that legislating for abortion here wouldn’t actually lead to any more abortions: all it would do is spare women any unnecessary suffering involved in travelling. As Simon Coveney, the paradigmatic reluctant repealer, told us in an op-ed he wrote in the Independent at the time of the referendum, “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”.
The fact that after repeal Ireland’s abortion rate took a huge jump upwards seems to have barely registered in public debate. If you take the estimate that the Together for Yes campaign made of the pre-repeal abortion rate, there was a 48% increase in the number of abortions performed on Irish between 2018 and 2019, from 4754 to 7041. That’s around 2287 more abortions as a result of repeal. If you use the estimates made by then-health-minister Simon Harris, the increase is more like 75%. (Our own estimates show an increase of ‘only’ 38.4% or 1995 more abortions.)
Those numbers stayed basically steady for a few years, and then in 2022 the figures jumped up massively again, with early estimates from health minister Stephen Donnelly showing that there were over 8500 abortions that year. I don’t know why there was this further huge increase (maybe something to do with the pandemic coming to an end? Or maybe the figures include abortions from 2021, which were underreported at the time?) but I’d like to know the answer! This is the kind of thing a review into the legislation should be looking at! Or indeed Ireland could collect proper data on abortion.
But this should be triggering alarm bells. If the main campaign group for a Yes vote tells us that they think there were about 4750 abortions in 2018, and then four years after repeal the numbers have apparently almost doubled, isn’t that cause for concern for anyone? Call me crazy but if, like the Taoiseach, you want abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare”, this would seem just a little bit concerning! Abortion seems to be becoming rapidly more common as a direct result of the removal of the eighth.
Could anyone ask the Taoiseach what he thinks about the increase? What about Simon Coveney? Is he still alive in there? What does he think now about his claim that the legislation is so restrictive that every woman getting an abortion would have got one anyway?
If you’re interested in making abortion rare, the review’s recommendations about the three-day waiting period seem particularly insane. The Times again:
It is understood the report recommends that in terms of the three-day wait, which is the current period of time a woman must wait before being given access to abortion medication after requesting it, the law should be changed to instead give women a statutory right to a reflection period only if she wants it.
I’ll have to read this in context when the final report is published, because the way that it’s phrased there is bizarre. A statutory right to a reflection period only if a woman wants it? What does that even mean? The way the reflection period currently works is that you go in for one consultation, then you have to wait three days before a second appointment, either in the community, where you’ll be given the abortion pills, or in a maternity hospital or unit (depending on the circumstances of the pregnancy). The HSE reports that in the first four years of the new abortion law’s operation (2019-2021), 3,951 women did not return for a second consultation after the three-day reflection period elapsed. Assuming some substantial proportion of them changed their minds during the period and decided not to have an abortion, the reflection period may have saved thousands of lives. If you make it optional, that’s essentially the same as not having it at all (the only way to make sense of a statutory right to an optional reflection period is as a ban on forced abortion: which is obviously illegal anyway). Get rid of it and expect to see abortion rates rise even further.
I’d love to see a broadcaster ask Varadkar and Coveney about all this. Why on earth, if abortion numbers have increased so much and may be increasing further, are they even thinking about making the legislation weaker? Why are they thinking about taking away those parts of the legislation that make the biggest impact on limiting numbers that are rapidly rising even with those limits in place? Why aren’t they thinking of adding new safeguards and limits?
I totally understand why a principled pro-choice maximalist would be doing this. But if you’re a reluctant repealer, the moderate course at this stage would be to push the brakes, figure out why abortion rates are going up, and then try to change the legislation and related guidelines and policies to address that. That would show an actual interest in making abortion safe, legal, and rare. Now who knows? Maybe that’s what Coveney, Varadkar, and Michael Martin are actually planning on doing. Very unlikely, but possible! Slightly more plausible is that they are going to ignore the review’s recommendations and leave the legislation as-is. Interestingly, that seems to be the move most in line with public opinion.
But to weaken the legislation at this point would show that any talk by the government about “safe, legal, and rare” is just talk.