In this article, I would like to comment on the recently published statistics on abortion in Ireland for 2019 – the first full year of abortion being made legal in this country following the repeal of the 8th Amendment by popular vote in May 2018. In doing so, I wish to condemn or judge no one. My intention is not to target the women involved, much less to shame them but to remind ourselves of our collective responsibility for these figures as Irish people, for the society we have become, for the values we hold and for signs of deep wounds that cry out to be addressed. I wish to ask ourselves how we can help save lives, to reduce the carnage and to walk with those who are in crisis and alone. My aim is to discover the truth that the facts reveal and to acknowledge the human tragedy behind them. Its aim is also to hold up a mirror to claims and predictions by both sides of the abortion debate who passionately argued their case prior to the referendum. As a Church, it is imperative that we raise our voice for the voiceless – for those who have no voice or who are no longer unable to speak. To speak for the thousands who have lost their lives is the very least we can do in response to the deafening silence from the media and the majority of politicians who have largely ignored the publication of these statistics. One would have thought that the loss of life and the significant increase in number of abortions would have deserved a proper discussion as trends emerge following repeal. But this debate did not take place, or it won’t it seems. We seem too busy, too distracted by other things or simply ignore troubling questions that might disturb our settled conscience.
First to the statistics. They reveal that in 2019, 6,666 abortions took place in Ireland. This figure rises to 7,041 if you count the abortions carried out in England by people with Irish addresses. 7,041 Irish lives that cry to heaven to be acknowledged, named and mourned. Our tears are also shed for the people involved, the pain and hurt that they bear and their grief. We rightly mourn the deaths of over 1,700 Irish people from the coronavirus but the loss of 7,041 little ones from abortion last year passes almost without comment, except for voices from groups like Amnesty who want to widen the grounds for abortion. We hear much in the media these days how ‘Black Lives Matter’. Some would respond and say ‘All Lives Matter’. But if the unborn could speak they might be justified in saying ‘Every Life Matters More than Ours’.
In contrast, in 2018 there were about 5,000 Irish abortions, based on numbers who travelled to the UK and those who bought abortion pills illegally. That amounts to just under 14 per day in 2018. In 2019, that figure rose to over 19 a day.
In the run up to the vote for repeal, the Irish government pushed for a ‘Yes’ vote mainly because we needed to care for Irish women who were forced to leave Ireland for the care they should have received at home. Repeal would mean that these women would now have the care at home and have their abortions safely as they were going to have them anyway. It was just a case of location as numbers would remain the same. So the argument went. The Taoiseach at the time supported repeal and hoped that the change in the law would mean that abortion in Ireland would be ‘legal, safe and rare’.
The Taoiseach made these comments knowing that in no other country that had introduced a liberal abortion regime did abortion become ‘legal, safe and rare’. And so it has proven in Ireland too. In the run up the referendum, the Pro-Life campaign warned that normalizing and legalizing abortion would increase the numbers significantly and that the change of law implied far more than a transfer of Ireland’s problem from abroad to back home. And so again it has proven right. Sadly, the increase in the numbers has come about as predicted.
The ‘Yes’ campaign also repeatedly claimed that abortion was required to protect women’s lives or for very rare hard cases. They persuaded successfully that a liberal abortion regime was necessary on the grounds of health care. However, the statistics show that up to 98% of Irish abortions last year were elective and carried out for social reasons.
The best known case used by the repeal campaign to argue that a change in the law was necessary was the tragic case of Savita Halapannavar, the young Indian dentist who died in Galway in October 2012 and who was pregnant at the time. There was an outcry at the time of her death because it was thought that Ireland’s ban on abortion had contributed to her death. In several official inquests, the cause of Savita’s tragic death was found to be sepsis caused by neglect. Her infection was not picked up soon enough due to a lack of care. Despite none of the official inquests concluding that her death was caused by a denial of an abortion, this did not stop her death being used, dishonestly, as an argument for repeal. In her native India, the 'India Times' website led with the headline: ‘Ireland murders Pregnant Indian dentist’. But it is worth repeating – there is no hard evidence that Savita’s life would have been saved had Ireland’s abortion laws been different.
But the main reason by far why most of the 66.4% of the electorate voted for repeal is because of the primacy of choice. Choice is what now trumps everything, even human life. Having choice is associated with freedom and liberty as the name suggests. To vote ‘Yes’ for something is unquestionably seen as a good thing, something necessary and progressive. To vote ‘No’ smacks of conservatism and oppression. Yet these abortion statistics seriously question the assumption that repeal has made Ireland a kinder, more gentle and compassionate country. Our lifestyles and our choices have resulted in the deaths of over 7,000 children in one year alone. Is this progress? Is this the new Ireland we should be proud of? As thinking citizens we must seriously question the narrative we are being asked to swallow.
The statistics just published lack the detail given by other countries. For example in Britain, information on abortion like gestational weeks, procedure (drugs or surgery), marital status, ethnicity, etc., are all included as part of the reporting system for analysis. The information gathered is vital to address health inequalities and improvements in public health and commissioning functions. It is like the importance of knowing whether cases of Covid-19 are higher among some groups more than others and how imbalances can be addressed.
The lack of equivalent information in Ireland’s report is deliberate as the Dail voted against it. The Dail did not want to know the stories and trends behind the abortion tragedy and does not want the public to know either. This means that as a country we do not care if abortion is more common among poorer families, teenagers, single women or married women. No questions can be asked or allowed. It seems that all attempts to raise the persisting moral ambiguities around the issue have been blocked and prevented. This is a form of State sponsored censorship and a blanket silencing of voices who might raise concerns about the morality of trends that unfold.
This is an appalling attempt to mask the truth and to find out the real reasons why abortions take place. According to the 2018 figures provided by the British authorities, 80% of Irish women who sought abortions in the UK were single while 18% were married with 2% separated, widowed or divorced. These stats shows again how the tragedy of abortion is connected to the institution of marriage and how marriage lowers the chances of someone having an abortion. From 2019 onwards, this information of who is accessing abortion and why may never again be available to the Irish public. The Irish State doesn’t want to know and doesn’t want us to know either.
I would like to conclude this reflection on a positive note and by highlighting the great work being done by organizations who are doing their utmost to protect vulnerable life, uphold a culture of life, support expectant mothers, offer alternatives to abortion and offer healing and support to women hurting after abortion. I am thinking here of groups such as the Pro-Life movement, Gianna Care, Every Life Matters, Rachels’s Vineyard and many more. The people working in these groups do so much we can be proud of and grateful for. Without them, the abortion tragedy would be even worse.
For us Christians, it is not enough to talk the talk. We must also walk the walk. We must be clear on what the Gospel teaches but help each other to live it too. This is what I admire most about these pro-life groups who offer alternatives to abortion and offer women real compassion and real hope that life deserves a chance. Included in this group are all advocates and supporters of family life and those who believe in the dignity and ends of human sexuality and marriage. These are the people who offer good news to our country that there is another way and that help is available from people who care.
Friends, thank you for your attention and engagement in this crucially important topic. While there may be little public grief over the 7,041 deaths of unborn Irish babies, we know that there is much unexpressed personal grief. Let us take this opportunity to pray for and help in any way we can those affected by the tragedy of abortion. We mourn their deaths but pray that their parents might seek and find the sacramental and pastoral support they need and be welcomed without judgment and helped to find healing and peace.