As the campaign for legal abortion gained momentum, a few courageous voices were raised against it. “Babies are not like bad teeth to be jerked out just because they cause suffering,” said one MP, who added that she feared the legalisation would lead to “abortion on demand”.
The year was 1967, and the politician was Jill Knight, the Tory MP for Edgbaston, protesting against David Steel’s abortion bill. Her objection – that the phrasing of the law, however cautious, would lead to widespread abortion – has been vindicated.
Fifty years on, as Ireland debates the liberalisation of abortion, the parallels are hard to resist. For instance, the emphasis on special cases: as Britain talked about risks to medical and mental health, Irish abortion campaigners concentrate on pregnancies resulting from rape, or those where the unborn child suffers from a life-threatening illness.
No less a figure than David Steel has said that focussing on unusual cases is generally delusional. “It would seem the mistake being made in Ireland is to try to define the circumstances in which each abortion may be carried out, and that is a hopeless road to travel down,” he has said. “I never envisaged there would so many abortions.”
Of course, Ireland’s situation has many distinctive features. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, added in 1983, affirms the “right to life”of the unborn child. That prohibition was weakened by a 2013 law which permits abortion where a woman’s life is at risk.
Now the “Repeal the 8th” campaign is hoping to make that amendment history. But constitutional change in Ireland needs a referendum, so pro-choice campaigners have several obstacles in their way.
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