Rite and Reason: Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it happening

Almost one in 10 Irish women have had an abortion, and the law should reflect this fact

The possibility of finding a consensus in the public debate about abortion often appears hopeless. Deeply held beliefs about a woman’s bodily integrity and her right to choose what is best for her life clash with deeply held beliefs about the precise point at which life and personhood begin, and what protection such life deserves.

These are difficult philosophical questions that deserve thoughtful and nuanced treatment, aimed at mutual understanding.

While we do that, however, Irish society is faced with a pressing choice: how do we wish to treat Irish women who choose to have abortions? With judgment, blame and neglect? Or with compassion, understanding and care?

This is our only real choice because Irish women, in significant numbers, already choose to have abortions: about 4,000 women every year, and at least 177,000 Irish women since 1971. That is almost one in 10 women between the ages of 14 and 64, which is a lot of grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and friends who, for myriad reasons, have made this choice.


So far, Ireland has chosen the course of judgment, blame and neglect. In maintaining a ban on abortion (unless the mother is in danger of death), we have collectively told those who make this choice that we are not willing to care for them. Instead, we let someone else do it.

In so doing, Ireland is engaging in a large-scale act of brushing the issue under the rug; the rug being our European neighbours, and the brush being the Constitutional amendment of 1992 that explicitly allows women to travel to another state for abortion.

This not only displays our indifference to the needs of our citizens, it also forces them to carry the heavy weight of our neglect. Women must travel out of the country in shame and secrecy, at a time of great stress. They must risk dealing with unknown doctors and clinics.

Those who can afford it are left with the expense of travel. Those who cannot travel risk criminal penalties if they undergo illegal abortions or take the abortion pill at home. All of this culminates in the psychological toll of being rejected by the State.

Those who wish to keep the present arrangement and maintain an outright ban on abortion may be doing so from a place of genuine faith and belief. But they must realise that they are engaging in a futile attempt to project their specific, idealised and simplified version of how things should be on to a messy and complicated reality that is shaded in grey.

Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it happening. It only serves to satisfy the ideologically motivated conscience of those who disagree with it, while hurting those who make the choice.

Supporting the legalisation of abortion, on the other hand, does not imply that you morally agree or disagree with it. It is merely an acknowledgment of the reality that it happens, combined with a commitment to show compassion to Irish citizens, even while disagreeing with their choices.

There is space – often hidden by oversimplified, oppositional public debate – to be against abortion, to believe it is wrong, and still make the choice to treat women who make that choice with care and understanding.

If those on the pro-life side want to reduce the number of abortions, their time would be better spent ensuring that Ireland is a place where women can have babies in the way they want, at a time of their choosing. They could lobby for increased distribution of contraception, fundraise for more sex education, protest for better financial support for mothers, examine the causes of rape, incest and abuse, and fight for economic equality and raised education and living standards for all.

Here lies an opportunity for differences in opinion to be united in a national consensus of compassion.

The tragic instances of Ms Y, the X case and Savita Halappanavar highlight the absurdity and cruelty of our current legislation. Yet there are thousands more untold stories happening every day, which should inform how we deal with what seems to be the next big issue for Irish society.

Choosing compassion, understanding and care does not have to undermine strongly held personal beliefs. It shows courage to bridge the gap between how things are and how you’d like them to be.

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