Why Ireland should not be embarrassed by its abortion laws

What is left unsaid is how extreme laws are in countries we are being asked to look up to

Backwards little Ireland, always struggling to keep up with her grown-up peers. Turning up late to the fight on contraception, divorce and gay marriage was bad enough, but she still hasn't dealt with abortion. It's 2016, and she's still embarrassing us on the global stage.

To much of the pro-choice lobby, Ireland's restrictive abortion laws aren't just wrong, but an example of how far she lags behind other modern countries. It's a familiar narrative, threaded prominently through the overwhelmingly favourable media coverage of Saturday's "March for Choice" calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. In The Irish Times, expatriates described how the liberal abortion laws of their adopted homes made Ireland appear regressive in comparison, motivating them to hold their own demonstrations calling for repeal.

One woman, a television producer based in Vancouver, described how living in such a "progressive and liberal society as Canada has made it apparent to me how far Ireland has to go in terms of women's rights and politics in general".What was left unsaid – as has become routine in these discussions – is just how extreme the abortion laws are in some of the supposedly more civilised countries we are being asked to look up to.

In Canada, there are no legal restrictions on abortion whatsoever, allowing terminations up until birth for any reason that doctors are comfortable with.


Contrary to its liberal image, the country is apparently uninterested in transparency when it comes to this legal regime, refusing to collect statistics on the number of late-term abortions.

The situation is hardly less extreme in the Australian state of Victoria. Abortion is permitted without restriction until 24 weeks, after which two doctors must merely agree it is “appropriate in all the circumstances”. In 2013, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 358 abortions carried out past 20 weeks in the state, the justifications for which were spilt evenly between “psychosocial” reasons and congenital abnormalities.

While offering more complete statistics than in Canada, the state does not specify how serious these abnormalities or psychosocial scenarios actually are, or if they are even serious at all.

Reasonable people will disagree on exactly when personhood begins, whether it is at the moment of conception, the first heartbeat at about six weeks, or the point of viability outside the womb at about 22 weeks onward.

What pro-choice activists can’t credibly do is casually wave away concerns about the rights of the unborn in the later stages of pregnancy. A six, seven or eight-month-old foetus is not a “clump of cells”. Quite clearly, it’s a child.

Voodoo trick

Considering the scrutiny pro-life activists face over the possibility they may be motivated by religious superstition, it’s striking that Amnesty and like-minded advocates are never called on to explain by what voodoo trick babies are conferred with human rights upon contact with the air – why a baby has no rights five minutes before birth but every human right straight after it.

The media, visibly excited at the prospect of the country casting off another ostensible shackle of bad old Catholic Ireland, doesn’t seem particularly interested in asking for answers to such questions.

In this scrutiny vacuum, Ireland can be portrayed as standing disgracefully apart from a class of modern, enlightened peers. In a debate grounded in reality, the strictness of Ireland’s abortion laws shouldn’t be held up as extreme in comparison to countries that treat the unborn child as entirely disposable. And Ireland would never be expected to hang her head in shame.

John Power is an Irish journalist based in Melbourne