Why we should support the right to legal abortion

This is my contribution, in support of legalising abortion, at yesterday’s debate in the University of Limerick. The Youth Defence/Pro-Life speakers declined to give permission for video of their contributions to be published.

When we were addressing the recent Oireachtas hearings on abortion, a lot of opponents of legalised abortion were worried about a line being crossed if the government legislates for abortion. They feel that it is the first time that that line will have been crossed.

But in fact it isn’t. Abortion is already legal in Ireland. The X case has already ruled that a woman in Ireland has a right to an abortion if there is a threat to her life, including the threat of suicide.

And the Irish people have twice endorsed that decision in referenda. And the Irish people have added, in one of the referendums, the right to travel abroad to have an abortion under far wider grounds than are available in the X case.

So what the current legislation, if it happens, is going to do, is not to introduce legalised abortion into Ireland, but to enable pregnant women to know whether or not they qualify for the existing constitutional right to abortion in Ireland.

And in order to extend that, we’re going to have to have further legislation, in order to address issues like victims of rape or incest, or threats to the health of a pregnant woman, or fatal foetal abnormalities.

And to do that, we need to get rid of the 1983 referendum, which is restraining our public ethics on this issue. But while we are waiting to do that, let’s not pretend that abortion is currently illegal in all circumstances in Ireland, because it isn’t.

As atheists, we form our own individual ethical decisions about issues, including abortion. There are some atheist that are pro-choice, and some atheists that are anti-choice. But what does unite us is that we don’t get our morality from gods.

And so we don’t believe that laws should be based on what some people believe that the creation of the universe is telling them to impose on us. We believe that our laws should be based on compassion, and human rights and empathy, and not on religious dogma.

Supporting the right to legal abortion

Personally, I believe that a pregnant woman is justified in choosing to have an abortion based on bodily integrity and bodily autonomy. But you don’t need to agree with me on that in order to support legalisation of abortion.

Because you can morally disapprove of something, and still not believe that people should be legally prevented from doing it. We do that in a whole range of areas of civic life.

Personally, I believe that a foetus is not a human person, certainly not in the early stages, and there is a difference between being human and alive, and being a human person. But again, you don’t have to agree with me on that in order to believe that abortion should be legalised.

Because, even if we are talking about adult human persons, there are no circumstances where the law obliges an adult human person to use their body, their internal organs, or indeed transfusions of their blood, in order to keep another adult person alive.

A parent is not obliged by law to donate an organ, or even their blood, in order to keep their own child alive after it is born. So if we don’t do that, if we recognise the right to bodily integrity even when dealing with adult persons who require the use of our body in order to stay alive, why on earth would we make an exception in terms of a being whose status as a human person is at a minimum questionable.

Personally, I believe that a woman should have a right to an abortion on request, based on the principle of bodily autonomy. But again, you don’t have to agree with me on that in order to support the principle of legalised abortion.

Because if you agree with even one of the various exceptions, that most people agree with one or more of, in terms of abortion where there is a threat to the life of a pregnant woman, in terms of rape or incest victims, in terms of fatal foetal abnormalities, in terms of the health of a pregnant woman being at risk, if you believe in even one of those exceptions, then you believe that abortion should be legalised.

And there is a very small percentage, opinion polls in recent years have shown, certainly less than 10% of Irish people, who believe that abortion should be outlawed in all circumstances.

So if you support any of those exceptions, you support the right to abortion. It’s not a dirty word. You don’t have to be ashamed to say that you support the right to abortion. It’s a basic right.

Youth Defence, China and Joseph Scheidler

Youth Defence, who are represented here today, are anti-choice. They are like a mirror image of the Chinese policy of one child per family with enforced abortions.

Both Youth Defence and that Chinese policy believe that a woman should not have the choice as to whether or not she remains pregnant. I disagree with both of them.

Youth Defence have on their website a quote from a man called Joseph Scheidler, saying that “Youth Defence have kept abortion out of Ireland,” which isn’t true, but let’s leave that aside for a second.

I want to tell you a little bit about Joseph Scheidler, because he is one of the people who raises funds in America for Youth Defence. He runs an organisation called the Pro Life Action League, and they disrupt the work of abortion clinics in America.

He brought out a book in the 1980s called “Closed – 99 Ways To Stop Abortion,” which is one of the most disgusting books that I have read in my life.

It outlines inflammatory rhetoric that pro-life people should use, including Holocaust, abortuary, and death camp. it describes how they have used private detectives to track down pregnant women in America to try to talk them out of abortions. It includes chapters like “Use the horror stories” and “Warn the garbage man in you’re hauling corpses.” And it outlines how to enter abortion clinics, pretending that you want an abortion, in order to disrupt the work of the clinic.

I got this copy of this book in the early 1990s in Veritas, the Roman Catholic Bishops’ bookshop in Dublin. Fortunately the book has a section in it enabling people to get on the mailing lists of abortion clinics in order to disrupt their work.

And at the time, under the old version of the constitutional amendment, it was illegal to provide information on abortion clinics abroad. So I sent a copy of the book to the DPP and the Garda Commissioner, and I got it banned from Veritas. At least that referendum had one slightly useful side-effect.


I’m going to end by saying that if you support even one of the exceptions, then you should support this motion.

If you support the right of women to travel to England for an abortion, then you should support their right to have an abortion here.

If you believe that abortion is morally wrong, but should not be criminalised, then you should support this motion.

If you believe in a compassionate and ethical Society, based on human rights for women, then you should support this motion.

Why we should support the right to legal abortion

7 thoughts on “Why we should support the right to legal abortion

  1. Fair enough Michael and reasonably said. I’m not quite sure of my finalised attitude to abortion. Like I don’t think it should be there completely without restrictions and I’m unsure of when such restrictions should click in. I am reasonably sure, however that it should not become an alternate form of contraception, it’s too serious for that. I take on board and agree with your point that if I feel abortion should be permitted for any of the reasons put forward, I should support its availability.
    I feel though that the time that the woman has been pregnant has to be taken into account. We cannot really know at what stage the fertilised egg becomes a human but I feel clear that it takes more than a few weeks. To go with Catholic “teaching” these days, it would seem to be at conception. However, Catholic teaching (I’m familiar with it because it is the religion I had inflicted on me as a child) also denounces (male) masturbation, an activity that most now consider normal. As Catholic doctrine condemns even the earliest termination of pregnancy as evil, being the extinction of a potential life does not logic demand that (their words) the sin of Onan be also condemned publicly? Just another anomaly in Catholic propagandising of their doctrine?
    To be blunt (and I do not mean to be vulgar), I cannot really see any real; difference between a termination of pregnancy in the first few weeks (given that while there is a “potential person it adds up to a collection of inert cells) and the loss of sperm caused by a male masturbating.

  2. Jack Butler:
    “. I am reasonably sure, however that it should not become an alternate form of contraception, it’s too serious for that.”
    Why do you think that women are that stupid? An abortion isn’t something you do instead of contraception, it’s something you do when it fails. Look at Canada, where there are no restrictions on abortion. Look if you see someting there that you consider a problem.
    If not, why not assume that women don’t need to be told when and how and why they can have an abortion?

  3. Giliell,
    How do you make the jump from my statement that I am reasonably sure that (abortion) should not become a … form of contraception to assuming that I think “that women are that stupid”? One can reasonably make the point that at least some abortions come about because of not just a failure of contraception but of not using contraception. Some may be taken of the moment and make love without even considering birth controll.
    The Catholic church, in particular, has (criminally to my mind) done everything in its not inconsiderable power to restrict the availability of contraceptives, to lie about their effectiveness and to deamonise their use. They then proceed to wring their hands when a woman feels the need to avail of an abortion as she was unable to avail of contraception (and I do not relieve the male from having an equal responsibility for contraception).
    Now, having responded to the substance (as i see it) of the point made in your post, I feel that you are making assumptions about how I feel that have no basis in my post. I have no issue with discussing the merits or otherwise of what I post, but I do not feel I should discuss views or mindsets that other posters falsely attribute to me. It is this kind of nonsense that detracts from civilised intelligent discourse.

  4. Jack Butler
    Well, why would you make that statement if you didn’t think that this would happen if abortion was widely avaible.
    Yes, sex without contraception happens. It happens where abortion is avaible, it happens where it is not. And sometimes people make mistakes. But your statement makes only sense if you assume that women would consciously choose an abortion over contraception.
    Agree with the rest of what you say, but maybe you should think about why a woman would interfere that from your statement.
    Here’s a hint: because I’m sick and tired of discussing “Slutty McSlut and her bad decisions about sex and why the non-existence of such a woman is grounds for limiting the rights of actually existing women.”
    Whether you inteded it or not, you comment fell along those lines.
    Let’s stop talking about abortion as if it was something bad and shameful.
    “Safe, legal and rare” was a stupid motto.

  5. Giliell,
    What Statement?
    I don’t know what “interfere” means.
    This will be my last reply to you as, on principal, I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent.

  6. Same to me.
    I would think that for somebody with basic literacy it would be clear that I wa refering to the statement of yours I quoted.
    Last time I was in Ireland schools were better there.

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