Breda O’Brien: Making abortion safe, legal and rare is impossible

Our solution to the abuse and poverty of women cannot be ending young human lives

After more than a decade of delay, the Government announced it would finally ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). This was in the same week as Leo Varadkar announced his hope that abortion will be available in the case of a (so-called) fatal foetal abnormality.

No time limit was suggested for unborn boys and girls with life-limiting conditions, presumably following the UK model.

In recent times, the UN Committee on the CRPD has condemned abortion that discriminates against people with disabilities. For example, it has said: “Laws which explicitly allow for abortion on grounds of impairment violate the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

It added: “Often it cannot be said if an impairment is fatal. Experience shows that assessments on impairment conditions are often false. Even if it is not false, the assessment perpetuates notions of stereotyping disability as incompatible with a good life.”


Great timing, Ireland. Plan to ratify the convention and be in immediate breach of it, all in the same week.

The committee has already rebuked Britain for allowing abortion up to birth on grounds of disability. Abortion in the UK has no time limit under Ground E, that is the risk that the child "would have such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped".

In the UK, according to the National Statistics Office, there were 3,208 abortions on the grounds of disability in 2016 including for cleft palate, spina bifida, Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis. Of these, 225 were after 24 weeks. For example, there were 231 abortions for Edwards syndrome, a life-limiting condition, of which six took place after 24 weeks.

Varadkar announcement

Is that what Leo Varadkar means by his announcement that abortion will be safe, legal and rare?

Bill Clinton came up with "safe, legal and rare" in the 1990s. He felt unable to promote abortion unequivocally even 20 years ago. But he and Hillary came under fire for using "rare" because it implied something distasteful about abortion. By the time of Hillary's presidential campaign, "rare" had disappeared.

The Clintons' position evolved. Hillary Clinton declared in 2016, "The unborn person does not have constitutional rights." Leo's evolution just took a little longer.

Abortion is legal in many jurisdictions, but that does not make it right, or helpful for women

What does our Taoiseach mean by rare? In 2017, there were 159 deaths on Irish roads. Are road traffic deaths rare? Or are they 159 deaths too many?

The Taoiseach also said we had to stop exporting and importing our problems. Currently, some women’s groups advocate using abortion pills unsupervised despite the dangers of retaining parts of the unborn baby, excessive bleeding or infection. If we include pills, there are about 5,000 abortions among Irish women or women resident in Ireland.

If we want to stop importing and exporting abortion, we will have to accept 5,000 abortions in Ireland. We tackle the causes of road deaths. Those 159 deaths on the road are termed “carnage” but an estimated 5,000 deaths are an unfortunate reality that we must facilitate in Ireland?

And it won’t stop there. David Steel, the architect of the British 1967 Abortion Act that was also supposed to provide abortion that was safe, legal and rare, admitted in 2013 that he was shocked that well over one-third of abortions are repeat abortions.

Pregnancy vs abortion

In 1968, there were 23,641 abortions in England and Wales. By 1971, there were 126,777. By 2016, there were 190,406, which means that one in five pregnancies end in abortion. Rare?

What about safe? I notice that in his list of Irish abortion cases that caused his evolution, the Taoiseach never mentioned Bimbo Onanuga, a Nigerian-born woman, whose womb ruptured causing the death of her unborn daughter at 29 weeks and her own death.

The inquest concluded that her womb had been weakened by scarring that occurred when Onanuga’s womb had been perforated during a previous abortion, and that this predisposed her to rupture.

The scarring only showed up postmortem, but perforation of the womb is a known risk factor in abortion.

Everyone knows of Savita Halappanavar, who tragically died after what Hiqa called "13 missed opportunities" to notice and react to her rapidly deteriorating condition. If Savita's symptoms had not been missed through neglect for which nine staff were censured, she would have been delivered days before, as is normal Irish medical practice, and probably be alive.

Who knows Bimbo's name, an equally tragic story, but one which highlights the dangers of abortion? Or Aisha Chithira (32) who bled to death after travelling from Ireland to England to have an abortion at a Marie Stopes clinic in 2012?

Legal? Sure, abortion is legal in many jurisdictions, but that does not make it right, or helpful for women.

The international Campaign for Women's Right to Safe Abortion states that research shows 40 per cent of abortions are motivated by economic reasons such as poverty, with 31 per cent due to reasons related to a partner, who might be absent, unsupportive or abusive.

So let’s not tackle women’s poverty or abusive or unsupportive partners. Let’s just end the youngest human lives instead. If this is the brave new world our politicians are evolving towards, the destination of the journey is terrifying.