Phrase ‘abortion on demand’ has dishonest edge

A linguistic trick which conjures in the mind an image of impatient consumers

The phrase "abortion on demand" has taken a central place in the debate surrounding the eighth amendment in Ireland. It is used most often by those who do not wish to repeal the amendment for fear it will lead to "abortion on demand", a situation that is to be avoided, we are to assume.

We also hear the refrain that, while there are many grey areas, we do not want Ireland to become a culture with the “floodgates opened to abortion on demand”.

The phrase does a lot of heavy lifting for those who use it, but without actually saying anything specific. It is left hanging in the background of debate, casting a vague and supposedly scary shadow over the future.

We are left to infer from the way it is used that abortion on demand is a bad thing. Why is this?


Consumer culture

The words “on demand” are most often associated with contemporary, technology- driven consumer culture, such as television on demand, films on demand, printing on demand and banking on demand. It’s a phrase that encapsulates the goals of modern consumerism.

We customers should get whatever we want as soon as we want it, even if it is something we don’t really need or will soon get bored of.

So when it is used, it conjures in the mind an image of impatient, demanding consumers who want their products or entertainment whenever they feel like it.

By using this terminology within the debate on abortion, all of these negative associations are subtly dragged into the discussion.

A linguistic trick allows the policy of providing safe, legal abortion services to women to become associated with a culture of impatience, laziness, selfishness and thoughtlessness – all the worst aspects of consumer culture.

This is the implicit meaning behind “abortion on demand”.

Lack of trust

In literal terms, stripped of the consumerist overtones, the phrase describes a situation where abortion services are safe, legal and available to women who make that choice for whatever reasons they deem fit. There are no specific criteria to be met beyond term limits. Why should this be a bad situation?

One can only assume that “abortion on demand” is to be avoided, because one does not trust women to make the choice with the requisite thought and consideration it deserves. So arguing that this is a bad thing comes from a lack of trust and respect for Irish women.

The use of the phrase "abortion on demand" perpetuates the misplaced fear that if we do not decide exactly when it's okay for women to make this choice, there is a risk that Irish women will reveal themselves as silly, thoughtless, selfish, lazy, impatient and demanding people who will start having abortions with the same amount of thought as is involved when selecting a movie on Netflix.

This image does not match with the women we all know in our lives. Irish women are well aware of what is involved in making the choice to have an abortion. They make that choice in significant numbers every year and do so from a place of consideration and responsibility, with the added weight of rejection and travel.

What’s needed in this debate is something to bridge the gap between the women we know, respect and love in our lives and the public perception of women that is subtly sustained by the use of “abortion on demand”.

This is why the stories of Róisín Ingle, Tara Flynn and others are so important to the debate we are having. Coming forward publicly with such stories is not something anyone should be forced to do, but in order to show that the Irish women who make this choice are ordinary, intelligent, responsible people, it is necessary.

Dishonest implication

Even if these stories leave you unconvinced that Irish women can be trusted to make this choice themselves, banning it is still not the answer. As has been repeated ad nauseam, making it illegal doesn’t stop abortion from happening, it merely piles shame, guilt and rejection on top of an already difficult time.

“Abortion on demand” carries a dishonest implication about the possibility of free, safe and legal abortion services in Ireland. And when viewed through a lens of trust and respect for Irish women, it is not something to be feared.

Dr Robert Grant is a tutor in philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. He writes at robert- and tweets at @RobGrant77