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The three-day waiting period for abortion: the case for retention

Thousands of children alive in Ireland today thanks to 72-hour abortion reflection time

The three-day waiting period for abortion: the case for retention Version 2

Promises matter in politics. Democracy relies on the consent of the governed, and when promises are broken, trust in our political system is eroded.

In the 2018 abortion referendum, the Irish people were asked to place their trust in politicians by repealing the Eighth Amendment, removing all constitutional rights from unborn children, and giving the Oireachtas a free hand to make laws on abortion. The Pro Life Campaign (PLC) cautioned that this trust could eventually be abused, with extreme abortion laws brought in over the people’s heads. This is what happened in most countries which have legal abortion.

To reassure voters, the Government published draft proposals which would be put into law if the Eighth Amendment was repealed, which included some very modest restrictions such as a 12-week gestational limit for abortion on request, and a three-day period of reflection between an initial consultation between a woman and her doctor and the carrying out of an abortion. There were also guarantees that conscientious objection would be enshrined, to prevent a scenario arising where medical professionals were compelled to perform abortions in conflict with their ethical and moral outlook.

Prior to the referendum, these limited “safeguards” helped persuade voters who wanted to see limited changes to Ireland’s abortion policy but were wary of a UK-style unrestricted abortion regime. Then tánaiste Simon Coveney only openly advocated a Yes vote after receiving assurances on the “strict guidelines” which would regulate a post-repeal abortion regime.


A section in the draft legislation required a review of the law after three years of operation. This should have allowed an honest and comprehensive examination of the problems which have emerged since January 2019, and for identifying possible steps to address them. Unfortunately, in the run-up to the launch of the review in late December, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly only met pro-abortion interest groups who want to make an already extreme law even more extreme. Being ideologically blinkered is no way to conduct a review which is meant to be independent and evidence-based.

The review has been conducted without public or parliamentary scrutiny. Donnelly has outsourced the handling of the review to handpicked academics, many of whom have a public history of pro-abortion campaigning. This is completely at odds with the idea of a fair and independent process.

Media reports in late March 2023 indicated that the review would recommend that the three-day waiting period be abolished, despite no clinical or scientific basis for this. In fact, evidence from the first three years of the abortion law shows that the waiting period helps many women to get past any initial sense of panic, giving a window of time during which they can seek support services or help from family and friends.

According to the Health Service Executive, a total of 3,951 women did not return for a second consultation after the three-day reflection period elapsed. Not all of these cases will have been because women changed their minds, but clearly it can be inferred that thousands of these women decided to proceed with their pregnancies. There are thousands of children alive in Ireland today thanks to the three-day waiting period.

Another report in April 2023 incredibly suggested that freedom of conscience could cause the Irish abortion system to “collapse”. This hyperbolic claim was made by Deirdre Duffy, one of the researchers behind the review. Contrary to her claim, we have seen a massive rise in abortions in the last four years to total approximately 28,500 in Ireland. Donnelly stated how there were 8,500 abortions last year – the highest on record. Not only does this illustrate how ruthlessly effective the abortion regime is, it further shows how the bottom has fallen out of claims that abortion would be “rare” in a post-repeal Ireland.

Selectively focusing on eroding freedom of conscience in an effort to force doctors to perform abortions against their principles is a distraction. In fact, freedom of conscience enriches our medical system as it ensures doctors remain real individuals whose work is informed by their ethical worldview. We want to know that our doctors take their duties seriously and aren’t robotically following diktats which may go against their convictions.

National policy supposedly views abortion as a last resort, but we simply don’t know whether this is how it is being presented to women. The HSE has spent €834,000 advertising abortion services through its My Options hotline which leads women to access abortion. How much has it spent trying to promote alternatives such as adoption or supports for women who might choose to have their baby if they can avail of that help? Instead of being the last resort, it appears that the State’s real policy presents abortion as the only option for women facing an unplanned pregnancy.

While the pro-life movement wants to see an Ireland which protects all human life from conception to natural death, we are interested in highlighting the realities which have emerged from the abortion legislation. Even many Yes voters would not support the state of Ireland’s current abortion policy, which denies women alternatives and has seen horrendous human rights abuses such as indications from a University College Cork report that babies were born alive yet left to die having survived abortions.

Too many politicians and commentators believe Ireland’s abortion debate ended in Dublin Castle on May 25th, 2018, but this was really only the beginning of a new phase. If we are really interested in addressing the spiralling abortion rate and strengthening informed consent, then it’s necessary for all sides to take a fresh and objective look at the full impact of Ireland’s abortion laws.

Eilís Mulroy is campaign manager of the Pro Life Campaign