• Home
  • Blog
  • How campaigners dropped the ‘fatal’ from ‘fatal foetal abnormalities’ in push for abortion

How campaigners dropped the ‘fatal’ from ‘fatal foetal abnormalities’ in push for abortion

In the run-up to the 2018 abortion referendum, the airwaves and newspapers were permeated with the term “fatal foetal abnormality” or “FFA” for short, as liberal campaigners and politicians clamoured to win the public over amid a deep-rooted cultural and moral uneasiness with the idea of voting yes to abortion on demand.

Many parents of children diagnosed with conditions such as Trisomy 18 rightly took issue with a term they saw as dehumanising, arguing that no child should be called an “abnormality,” urging people to use the term “life-limiting condition”. In fact, it is now acknowledged that the phrase ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ is not a medical term. 

Every Life Counts, a group made up of parents who have given birth to babies with a range of life-limiting conditions, powerfully argued in an open letter in response to one Irish Times piece at the time against the use of the term.

“These babies were our children. They had a severe disability. They were not a “fatal abnormality,” nor were they less than human,” they wrote. 

However, it was understood in the referendum debate, that the diagnoses under discussion were those that were highly likely to lead to the death of the unborn baby in utero or in infancy, including conditions such as anencephaly and triploidy.

These difficult cases were the focus of much of the campaign from abortion supporters and politicians who supported repeal. It was repeatedly argued that abortion was necessary for women who had received a diagnosis of a “fatal abnormality” – and also argued that this did not, and would not, extend to legalisiing abortion on disability grounds. 

Abortion was presented often as a necessary tragedy, something not to be celebrated, but nevertheless a necessary sensible solution for a family caught up in a tragic situation not of their own making.

We were told the harrowing stories of some women who travelled to Britain to abort babies with these conditions – with the implication being that as a no voter, you were surely some kind of cruel monster for believing that there might be another option than abortion, which there are, however much the media doesn’t want to acknowledge that. NO campaigners were blasted for having a “lack of compassion” for being willing to point to the humanity of these babies. Pro-lifers were accused of wanting women to feel alone and isolated in a country without abortion.

Politicians used this term too. Going back over the Dáil record, there are reams of contributions from politicians who called for abortion law to be changed for “fatal” or “lethal” abnormalities. The majority of abortion-supporting politicians who made statements in the Oireachtas “proudly” ushering in a new era of abortion in Ireland were quick to point to the necessity of abortion for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, along with rape, and risk to life of the mother. 

Abortion was put forward to voters not on the grounds of disabilities, but very specifically on the grounds of the baby having a fatal foetal abnormality which would result in death “before or shortly after birth.” We were told, relentlessly, by the media and political class this debate was about babies who were not likely to survive. Those who cautioned about the possible return of eugenics were scoffed at and accused of muddying the waters.

It was Simon Harris, then serving as Health Minister in 2018, who scolded a broad section of the electorate, when he said it was “somewhat offensive” to suggest Irish women would opt for abortion after a disability diagnosis. Taking aim at pro-life campaigners, Harris said:

“I find it really, really difficult to discuss this,” Harris said.

“I’ve heard from parents of children with Down Syndrome in the last few days saying, ‘please do not manipulate or utilise my children to suit your political argument on this very sensitive matter’.
“I do not believe women in this country adopt that approach when they have a diagnosis of a child with a disability,” he said, adding: “I think it is somewhat offensive to suggest women in Ireland are seeking abortions for that reason.”

Abortion advocate Dr Peter Boylan was among those in 2018, several months after Repeal won the referendum, to admit that there were “challenges” around abortion for abnormalities, warning: “The consequences of getting it wrong are serious. 

“We could end up with a termination done for a condition that is not fatal or vice versa.”

That very situation was realised just one year post-repeal, when one Irish couple aborted their baby after being told the unborn child had a fatal foetal abnormality and would not survive the pregnancy, or would die shortly after delivery. Doctors in Dublin gave the couple the advice that it was best to proceed with an abortion. Two weeks later, a final result came through from the tests, showing that an error had been made – and that the unborn baby, a little boy named Christopher, was healthy.

It is not the only such catastrophic case of its kind – In a parliamentary response to pro-life Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín last year, it emerged that the State is being sued over two cases of alleged misdiagnosis of fatal foetal abnormalities which resulted in abortions. Between January 1, 2018, and February 28th, 2023, there were 133 alleged adverse incidents reported relating to abortion.

The case of babies with life-limiting conditions was persistently used not only by the media and politicians, but also by Amnesty International, one well-funded supporter of the Irish abortion drive who polled support for abortion prior to the referendum, focusing on the issue of FFA.

In a poll from November 2017, Amnesty’s determination to use fatal foetal abnormalities to drive a law change was clear – they claimed that where there was a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality, support for abortion among the public was at 81 per cent. Aside from the argument around the hard cases of rape, and the life of the mother being at risk, abortion for “fatal” conditions was the biggest driver or support for introducing an abortion regime in Ireland.

That is why it’s so interesting to see that “fatal” has been almost entirely dropped from the dialogue around abortion. “Fatal foetal abnormalities” have been replaced with simply “foetal abnormalities.”

It was striking to listen to Tuesday’s Leaders Questions in the Dáil, during which it became clear that the goal posts have shifted. It was Holly Cairns TD who referred to women and their partners who “received a devastating diagnosis of foetal abnormality.”

The word “fatal” no longer featured – with the leader of the Social Democrats referring three times to “foetal abnormalities,” which Cairns described as “complex.”

“Will the Government remove the mandatory three-day waiting period, end the criminalisation of healthcare workers and provide more clarity when it comes to providing abortion in cases of foetal abnormalities?” Cairns pressed.

It marks a clear departure from the language used by Cairns as recently as a year ago. In April last year, Cairns referred to the “difficulty” of accessing abortion “when there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality,” something she claimed was “indefensible.”

Prior to that, in June 2022, Cairns again referred to “fatal” foetal anomaly cases as being “the leading reason” women travelled for abortions past 12 weeks while speaking in the Dail.

Indeed, during RTÉ Investigates on Monday night, the main abortion story in the programme featured a baby girl who had been diagnosed with a heart condition. The family of the child were told that even with surgical intervention, the baby girl, who they named Rose, would “likely struggle on a day-to-day basis” and her life expectancy would be low. 

Viewers were told that the child’s parents met with a cardiologist who explained that there was something wrong with the unborn child’s heart.

There was no reference to that baby having a “fatal” condition; no reference in the programme to anencephaly or the other “lethal” conditions we heard so much about in 2018. Nor were viewers told that the baby would die before or immediately after birth. The testimony chosen by RTE seemed a deliberate action on the part of the broadcaster to frame the necessity of abortion in light of a whole spectrum of conditions and imperfections, in a move away from talking about fatal foetal abnormalities.

What was also striking was hearing the parents say that it was during a doctor’s appointment that abortion was mentioned for the first time. Indeed, groups such as Every Life Counts have long warned about the danger of abortion becoming an expectation on parents, rather than a “choice” which was so keenly presented as a good thing during Repeal. It raises the question: Are parents being pressured by medics into aborting their children?

Over the last 7 years or more, campaigners and politicians have dehumanised children  with severe, life-limiting conditions and used their disability to justify abortion as a matter of “choice.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the public were misled by an abortion lobby who never really believed in gestational limits, now evidenced in the demand for full decriminalisation.

What is now obvious is that very sick babies were used as a means to bring in abortion on demand, but now that this objective has been achieved, the focus of campaigners and our political class has shifted to babies with less serious conditions, because their own worldview demands that abortion is a right which cannot be infringed upon – regardless of the circumstances.

The push is for abortion to now be expanded to include “non-fatal” conditions, and, as is included in Bríd Smith’s bill supported by Neale Richmond of Fine Gael and the Greens and Sinn Féin, for all unborn children up to 6 months gestation.  

Along with the sharp and shocking rise in the abortion rate – with 38,000 abortions which have taken place in just 5 years – is the statement from Dr Fergal Malone of the Rotunda that 95% of babies diagnosed in his hospital with Down syndrome are subsequently aborted. The push to expand the grounds of disability from ‘fatal anomalies’ to ‘anomalies’ would bring Ireland down the same horrific path which other countries have travelled with devastating effects. 

IN truth, Ireland’s abortion campaigners were just happy to use the hard cases to repeal the 8th, and happy to conceal their full intention until that obstacle was removed. This was never truly about babies diagnosed with “fatal foetal abnormalities.” Rather, these tragic cases and precious babies were used in a cynical effort to push the door further and further ajar. 

Maria Maynes



Photo Credit : Freerange Stock (CC0 1.0 DEED)



This article was first published on Gript and is printed here with permission


back to blog