Legislating for Article 40.3.3: Ryan on Abortion and Motherhood

Author: Dr Fergus Ryan, School of Social Sciences and Law, Dublin Institute of Technology

Abortion and Motherhood: Towards a more holistic view

The recent Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children hearings on abortion largely proceeded within a relatively narrow frame of reference.  Much of the discussion focussed on the application of the test set out in the Attorney General v. X, allowing a termination where a woman’s life is subject to a real and substantial risk.  The impetus for the current debate is the 2010 decision of the European Court of Human Rights in ABC v. Ireland, and the requirement to provide clear mechanisms for determining when an abortion can lawfully be performed in Ireland.

While this issue is of vital significance, the narrow focus on the X case test arguably detracts from a wider, more holistic discussion of the phenomenon of abortion.  It is notable, in particular, that the abortion debate has reignited at a time when, ironically, supports to parents and carers are being curtailed.  For instance, for 2013, child benefit has been reduced by €120 per child per year for each of the first two children, €216 for the third and €240 for the fourth and any additional children.  A family with 4 children thus stands to lose €696 this year and a further €120 in 2014.  This is on top of cuts to child benefit made in both the 2011 and 2012 budgets. Indeed, since 2010, child benefit for a family of four has dropped by a cumulative €1,728 per annum.

Meanwhile, the back to school clothing and footwear allowance has been cut by €50 per child.  The 2013 budget also saw the imposition (with effect from July 2013) of income tax on maternity benefit, which had previously been disregarded for tax purposes. The Irish Independent has estimated that this move will yield an average €833 clawback to Revenue.

Reductions have also been made in supports for one parent families.  In Budget 2013, the income disregard for the One Parent Family Payment (OFP) (the amount of extra income a recipient may receive before having the OFP reduced) was lowered by €20 per week. Further reductions are planned in future budgets such that by 2016 the weekly income disregard will be €60, as compared with €130 in 2012.  This is all the more troubling when one considers that, according to a 2010 study, lone-parent households on average experience the highest levels of deprivation of all household types in the State. (EU-SILC, 2010)

Additionally, the duration of entitlement to the payment is gradually being reduced. Currently, a person who started receiving the OFP before April 27, 2011 is entitled to the payment until her youngest child reaches the age of 18 but this upper age limit will drop to 17 in July 2013, to 16 in 2014, and then to 7 in 2015.  For those who first began receiving the OFP after April 2011 and May 2012 respectively, the age limits are being lowered on a more accelerated basis.   For instance, currently a person receiving the OFP for the first time today will cease to be eligible when their youngest child reaches the age of 12, dropping to 10 from July 2013, with the upper age limit being lowered further to 7 by 2014. While many of these parents will be eligible to receive job seeker’s allowance if unable to find work (the maximum rate being the same as that for the OFP), the effective aim of the changes is to ‘activate’ lone parents by prompting them to return to work at an earlier stage, thereby reducing the costs for the State.

All of this is before one considers increased health insurance and car tax costs, and the impact of a 2% hike in the higher rate of VAT in 2012.
Such cuts to supports for those raising children, when viewed cumulatively, reveal the deep–seated disconnect in government thinking on abortion.  As Boyle has observed “…although the rhetoric of both policy and legislation is strongly supportive of family, children and equity, the research indicates that practice is often at odds with intent.” Admittedly, the relationship between economic factors and the decision making process in crisis pregnancy is complex, though undoubtedly the long-term financial consequences of bearing a child contribute to the cost to value analysis that underpins a decision to terminate.

While financial factors on their own may not be decisive in prompting women to choose termination over motherhood, Boyle notes that “…a set of factors, broadly construed as “economic,” result in many women perceiving their pregnancies as crises.”  Indeed, in a 2004 US research survey, 73% of female respondents who had undergone a termination cited the cost of raising children (including opportunity costs) as one of the factors motivating their decision to abort.

When one considers the impact of childbearing and child-raising on long-term income earning capacity, the scales are arguably tipped further against opting for motherhood.   Although maternity protections in EU law are strong, Russell and Banks (2011) highlight what they call the ‘motherhood pay penalty’. Citing research that demonstrates the long-term financial disadvantages that arise when women interrupt their careers to raise children, they conclude that “…significant penalties are attached to having accumulated less work experience and to having spent time out of the labour market.”

Boyle has recommended a number of steps to help “alter the “cost/value” ratio in favour of motherhood”, including improved child benefit, measures obviating the high costs of childcare and steps to counter the long-term opportunity costs for women associated with absence from the paid labour force.  Yet ironically, the very Government that is contemplating how to legislate for X while keeping a tight lid on domestic abortions is eroding many of the measures that may have enhanced – in some small part – the option of motherhood over termination. This is not to say that financial supports for families necessarily tip the balance against termination – such an analysis oversimplifies the complex factors involved. Nor do I mean to imply that robust financial supports are an appropriate substitute for abortion law reform, or that liberalised abortion laws would obviate the need to support families.  Yet if the State is serious about preventing abortion in all but the most exacting circumstances it needs to consider very carefully how its budgetary policies can help or hinder the State’s pro-life agenda.