And is repealing abortion really the best approach?

Earlier this week, fellow contributor at AreoBarry Purcell, wrote “Is Ireland Ready for Abortion?” in which he concluded:

“No longer can the perceived lack of public appetite for change be used as an excuse for inaction. No longer can Catholic power be used as an excuse for inaction. Our new prime minister has promised a referendum on the Eighth Amendment next year, which is similar to earlier unfulfilled promises made down through the years. This time, Ireland is ready to trust its women and take its place among the nations of the earth.”

It is an inspiring well-argued piece but Barry has highlighted the hole in his own call to action: the “lack of public appetite for change.”

A referendum on abortion in Ireland would be detrimental to the pro-choice movement because it won’t pass — yet. When discussing law, society and the behavior of the masses, everyone talks about how the world should be but few people can articulate how to get there from the current state of affairs. When you consider the path dependence of a civilization, which is why laws can be changed in the first place, you are forced to confront the extraordinary inertia of religious influence.

To illustrate this: I once asked a friend  —  young, very well educated, proactive in her community, and raised as a devout Catholic  —  how the Eucharist works. She answered candidly that the bread and wine represents the body and blood of Jesus. This, of course, is a core tenet of Protestantism. Catholics are told to believe the communion literally is the body and blood of Jesus. She didn’t want to discuss it further.

This is part of the problem. Catholicism is so core to the being of religious people in Ireland, particularly rural Ireland, that even enormous glaring inconsistencies cannot persuade them it might not be true. It is a foundational pillar in their model of the world. It has been with them their entire lives. Trying to persuade a true believer that their religion is wrong is like trying to persuade someone not to feel hungry when they haven’t eaten; everything they have known their entire lives says otherwise. Religion has been a part of their lives longer than logic has. It forms the basis for how the world works for them.

In response to this most people say “Yes, but we passed the same sex marriage referendum so clearly the majority of the population has moved past that.” This is true. Even when the self-identifying Catholics make up a frighteningly large proportion of the Irish population, it wasn’t enough to stop gay marriage. Unfortunately, abortion has a weakness that same-sex marriage did not have: the moral case against it.

Consider an undecided voter listening to both arguments. The pro-choice community say that women have a right to their own bodies. If her health is at risk she should have the right to protect herself. If she was raped then carrying, birthing and even raising the child may cause immense psychological trauma. If she is financially unequipped to raise a child then allowing the pregnancy to proceed could vastly deteriorate the quality of life of the parents and child, where terminating the pregnancy in favour of having a child later in life would be better for everyone. There is also a wealth of personal reasons it may be inappropriate to have a child. Each of these are perfectly valid and our unnamed undecided voter finds herself leaning in that direction. Then the pro-life community proclaims we do not tolerate murder and an abortion is intentionally and pre-meditatively killing a living human entity. The debate propagates for hours…

The problem here is not which argument is better, it’s that neither argument is substantially better than the other. You could reasonably expect a roughly 50:50 division of people on each side. Worse still, if the pro-choice community cannot convey an overwhelmingly superior argument then average undecided voter will choose to keep the status quo. And to make that harder yet, the mantra that “murder is evil no matter the situation” is an easy heuristic most people use to get by in life  —  it is true in 99.9999% of situations.

Same sex marriage was undisputedly harmless to straight people and still 38% of the population voted against it. You can expect mostly the same people to vote against allowing abortion in Ireland, which means it would only take an additional 13% to vote against it on a moral basis and the war is lost. If a referendum is held and the Eighth Amendment is not repealed it will be the end of the abortion debate for a decade or two. Now is not the time for a referendum.

Playing the Long Game

Fortunately for the “Repeal the Eighth” movement, they are significantly more favourable among the younger population, and that trend is continuing over time. Opponents must feel a frustrating futility voting against it simply because, in the absence of some new research which shifts public opinion over the next 5–10 years, it is certain to happen eventually. This is a morbid but valid sentence: over time a greater proportion of pro-lifers will die, and a greater proportion of future pro-choicers will reach voting age.

Another related factor is that, historically, a huge proportion of young Irish people have emigrated from the island. In the depths of the Irish financial crisis a ludicrous amount of young people left the island, to the degree that “17.5 per cent of people over the age of 15 who were born in Ireland were residing overseas in 2014.” This trend is now reversing. Ireland is currently the fastest growing economy in Europe with no indication that that will stop in the short term. As a result a huge number of emigrants are returning home and it’s a safe bet that the majority of them are pro-choice supporters, given the age and educational profile of our emigrants in the past decade, and the supposed “reverse culture shock” they report feeling alienated by:

“Some respondents referred to ‘closed and insular’ and ‘patriarchal and conservative’ attitudes, while others expressed feelings of discrimination against their non-Irish family members.”

The Nation as an Institution

The Irish like to poke fun at America for some of the more extreme parts of life there. Education is comically expensive. Healthcare is tragically expensive. There is too little support for the poor and too many homeless people (although we’re not much better, lately). What nobody makes fun of is the explicit separation of church and state. The founding fathers showed extraordinary foresight by stripping religion from governance, and Ireland needs to consider instituting the same sooner rather than later.

“No longer can Catholic power be used as an excuse for inaction.”

This is an admirable sentiment, and I am confident we will get there some day. But today is not that day. Today, holding an abortion referendum would only terminate the #RepealTheEighth movement.

Post Script

In the aftermath of the infamous Google memo, I am conscious some of the statements above are vulnerable to being misconstrued as “pro-life propaganda.” Therefore, I would like to explicitly state I am pro-choice. I could be persuaded to stand for the pro-choice movement several times over, all for different reasons and none of which even require me to think through the moral case of terminating an unborn being for women’s control of their own bodies. For example:

I believe it is not up to me to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do. In the particular case of abortion, the fathers should generally be part of the discussion before a pregnancy is terminated, but legislating to block abortions is incredibly misguided. This is a personal issue, not a societal one.

If any given woman is willing to do something so traumatic to her body to end a pregnancy, she is going to be willing to leave the country to get it done. The activation energy of finding a complicit clinic is negligible next to personal distress caused by making a “wrong” decision. We really ought to let it be done in Ireland safely and with adequate supports, rather than in an illegal and unhygienic environment God only knows where.

A common argument by pro-life champions is that people will use abortions as a form of contraception. That’s a fair point, they certainly might. A quick Google search tells me that an abortion in the UK costs 500–1700 pounds sterling. I would suggest simply taxing abortion procedures up to the 7,000–12,000 euros range. Not enough to financially ruin someone’s life, but enough to make it prohibitively expensive unless absolutely necessary. Yes, they can still go abroad to avoid the fee but they’re doing that already so it’s not a great counterargument.

…and after all the practical reasons, there’s still the moral case that women have a right to their own bodies. You could write books on this argument, but basically the pro-lifers have a great ethical standing that I personally am not remotely capable of challenging. It’s just a bit redundant given more practical counterarguments like those above.

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  1. “People shouldn’t be having abortions regularly so it makes sense that it should be a difficult process.”

    Yeah, I’d get loads of abortions if they weren’t so pricey… /s

  2. Hi Gareth. You’re right, low income families would struggle to pay for the procedure. The purpose of the tax is not to be a bulletproof plan, simply an economic disincentive. People shouldn’t be having abortions regularly so it makes sense that it should be a difficult process. Then again even for low income households 5k could be paid off over several years. It’s on the scale of bad credit card debt, difficult, but not unmanageable. My fear would be the opposite – that it is not a sufficient barrier for particularly affluent households.

    Regarding seeking out illegal procedures, yes that will still occur to some degree but far less than is happening now, which is at least a partial improvement. I would hope even low income families would choose to struggle with 5k of debt rather than risk infertility, septicemia, infection, or even death, in an illegal procedure.

  3. A lack of “perceived public appetite for change” is enough to skew the polls. You can’t rely on a survey when voting on such a personal, contentious issue. Social pressures will conceal public sentiment. We saw the same with Brexit and Trump elections – polls and markets predicted landslide victories for Remain and Clinton respectively because nobody was willing to admit their real belief. I’d wager the real the real percentage is closer to 55-60%.

    Then you have the fact that members of the Citizens Assembly are not perfectly representative. For a start, they choose to be part of the Citizen’s Assembly which exposes them to constant dialogue for political change. Further, they feel they have to reflect the views of “people like them” as they were chosen to be representative of the population and the population pretends to be more progressive than it really is.

    Still, 64% is a huge majority for the Repeal vote. I agree a majority could vote to Repeal, but it would be very close. If a referendum is held next year and the vote doesn’t go our way there won’t be another one for at least a decade, probably longer. If we wait 4-5 years to hold the vote the chance of passing would be much higher.

  4. Interesting article. If abortion is legalized and heavily taxed though will that not mean people on lower incomes will either be prevented from having one, or else will have to do it illegally?

  5. The phrase I used was “perceived public appetite for change”. Leaving off the first word removes a context which makes it appear as though I was arguing against my own proposition. The difference between the public appetite for change and the “perceived public appetite for change” is outlined in the difference between your perception of the public appetite for change (they are not ready yet) and the outcome of the Citizen’s Assembly (64% in favour of repealing the 8th Amendment) which is backed up by other surveys which I linked in my piece.

    64% is enough to carry a referendum *right now*, but if Varadkar keeps his word and we have until next summer, that’s even more time to expose even more people to the pro-choice arguments (when the campaign kicks off).

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