Abortion will be “safe, legal and rare”, was the aspiration of the Government before the 2018 referendum to repeal the 8th amendment. The reality is that abortion in Ireland is far from rare and we now have reached 7,000 terminations per year.
In January 2018, when announcing that the Cabinet had agreed to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment, Leo Varadkar, who was then Taoiseach, said: “If the amendment is approved in a referendum, abortion in Ireland will become safe, legal and rare, in the situations provided for by the Oireachtas.” And again, in the same occasion, he repeated: “Safe, legal and rare. No longer an article of our Constitution, but rather a private and personal matter for women and doctors.”
Katherine Zappone, who was minister of children (the tragic irony!) at the time, said: “I hope that our people, that together, we will live in an Ireland someday soon where abortion is safe, legal and rare”.
A few days before the referendum, then Minister for Health, Simon Harris, announced free access to contraception as a way to keep the number of pregnancies low. “If our underlying principle is that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, then we must do all we can to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies and to support women in every way,” he said.
Now, after three years, it is clear that the Government policies to make abortion rare were completely ineffective. Did they really believe it was even possible?
But it is now the case that leading pro-abortion campaigners have abandoned the goal of keeping abortion rare, something even Hillary Clinton signed up to once upon a time.
During the referendum, The Abortion Right Campaign (ARC) objected to the Government slogan that abortion should “safe, legal and rare”. It said the slogan “shamed” women.
It told the Government: “It’s vital that in the ensuing campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment we avoid shaming those who have made the decision to have an abortion, or those who may need one in the future.” The organisation asked: “What message does it send to those people when we say that their decision is undesirable [to terminate a pregnancy], that they are part of a problem to be minimised?”
Last week, when the Minister for Health said that GPs had claimed reimbursement for 6,700 abortion final consultations in 2021, the Abortion Right Campaign welcomed the news with enthusiasm. “ARC celebrates 6700 people accessing abortion care, but more and better abortion provision needed”, their press released said. Would any number be considered problematic for them? Probably not. The more, the better.
The slogan “safe, legal and rare” was first used by Bill Clinton in 1992 to express the view that the Democratic party was pro-choice but also wanted to keep abortions at a minimum. Hillary Clinton repeated the slogan, adding “and by rare, I mean rare”, in her 2008 presidential primary run. But now, many on the pro-choice side regard the slogan as unacceptable because it ‘stigmatises’ abortion, and they have abandoned it. It implies that abortion is something negative, to be reduced, and they have substituted “rare” with the word “free”.
In practice, where has abortion become rare after it has been made legal on broad-ranging grounds?
The “safe, legal and rare” slogan might have convinced some naïve voters at the time of the referendum, but it was never realistic. If those who have used in the past sincerely believed in it, they have to look at the growing number of abortions in Ireland and acknowledge their mistakes. But they won’t, because they no longer believe, if they ever did, that abortion should be rare. They don’t seem to care how many take place.