Medical Treatment (Termination of Pregnancy in Case of Risk to Life of Pregnant Woman) Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed)
Thursday, 19 April 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: As we heard in the course of this debate last evening, there exists strongly and sincerely held views on this issue in all parties in the Dáil, including my own, and among the Irish people. I commend everyone who has participated in the debate on the manner in which the debate has been conducted.
While people may hold their own personal views, values and beliefs, we were elected as legislators in this Dáil, and with that come responsibilities. As elected representatives and legislators it is important that we act to deal with the huge difficulties caused for women and medical professionals in this State by the current absence of legislation.
It is important that we recall the circumstances that brought us to this pass. Twenty years ago, in 1992, a 14 year old girl, a child, became pregnant as a result of rape and was suicidal. The Government refused to allow the girl and her parents to travel abroad for an abortion. There was a huge public outcry and thousands of people took to the streets to protest. The case went to court and the Supreme Court ruled that “a termination of pregnancy is lawful if it can be shown that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother which can only be avoided by terminating the pregnancy; a threat of suicide can amount to a substantial risk to the life of the mother”.
In 2002 the Government sought to overturn the Supreme Court judgment and, with others, Sinn Féin campaigned against what was to be the 25th amendment to the Constitution. That referendum was defeated by the people. At that stage, there was a clear recognition that the matter at hand was not a black and white issue but a difficult and complex decision faced by women with crisis pregnancies.
Since then, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that this State violates the rights of pregnant women. That ruling makes clear that there is an onus on this State to legislate under the terms of the 1937 Constitution and the decision in the X case.
Sinn Féin does not argue for what is termed abortion on demand. We strongly believe that all possible means of education and support services must be in place for women and girls with crisis pregnancies. However, in the case of rape, incest or sexual abuse or where a woman’s life and mental health is at risk or in grave danger, Sinn Féin accepts that the final decision must rest with the woman.
Sinn Féin has analysed the Bill and a number of serious concerns have been raised about aspects of it. Some of these concerns were echoed in the comments of the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, during his speech last night. These are issues which need to be discussed properly in a considered manner and with maximum cross-party consensus to produce legislation. Sinn Féin believes the Bill should be allowed to proceed to Committee Stage at which point it can be discussed and amended.
Governments have failed to deal with this issue for 20 years. They have ignored the reality faced by thousands of Irish women. Last night, the Minister, Deputy Reilly, made it clear that the Government must take action to deal with this long overdue responsibility. He has given an assurance that the expert group will deal expeditiously with the very complex issues involved. That is most welcome. What is certain is that it is time for legislation to be finally enacted to protect the rights of women, as decided by the Supreme Court in 1992. It is time now for the Dáil, and for us as legislators, to do what is right by Irish women.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: The debate over the past two days has been dealing with an extremely difficult issue for all concerned, particularly women faced with the kind of situation with which the legislation is trying to deal. For more than 20 years successive Governments have failed to deal with the issue and have ignored the reality faced by tens of thousands of Irish women. They have also left medical practitioners is a very difficult situation caused by the absence of legislation. We must ask ourselves as elected representatives, as legislators, whether we want to leave women or the medical profession in the awful predicament caused by the current absence of legislation.
The Irish people know this is not a black and white issue, but a difficult and complex decision faced by women with crisis pregnancies. The people spoke in referendum and firmly placed the responsibility upon their Oireachtas representatives to deal with the issue by means of legislation where a mother’s life is at risk, including through the risk of suicide. The European Court of Human Rights found in 2010 that the rights of pregnant women were being violated by the State in its refusal to allow them to receive a lawful abortion if a pregnancy could threaten their lives. That decision made it clear that the State has an onus to legislate under the terms of the 1937 Constitution and the decision in the X case.
Sinn Féin is not in favour of abortion but in the case of rape, incest or sexual abuse, or where a woman’s life and mental health is at risk or in grave danger Sinn Féin accepts that the final decision rests with the woman. We have analysed the Bill and we believe a number of serious concerns arise about aspects of it, some of which were raised by Government Deputies and others during the debate last night and previously. However, it is our view that the legislation should go forward to Committee Stage to allow those concerns to be fully discussed and addressed properly rather than putting it off to another date.
The Minister, Deputy Reilly, indicated last night that the expert group will report — I have been told it will be in September — and that the Government will act. I hope it will act speedily and that there will not be another 20 year delay. I welcome the Government’s commitment to take action in this regard. It is time for legislation to be finally enacted to protect the rights of women as decided by the Supreme Court in 1992. It is important also that as legislators and representatives of the people we approach the issue in its broadest social context. The Government must consider whether its broader policies are pushing more and more women into positions of vulnerability.
Is ceist cuíosach deacair í seo do go leor daoine. Tá riail ann ón gCúirt Uachtarach ó 1992 agus caithfidh muidne, mar dhaoine atá gafa le reachtaíocht a chothú, cloí le sin. Ach le tamall de bhlianta anuas, níl Rialtais tar éis cloí leis an riail a rinne an Chúirt Uachtarach. Impím anois ar an Rialtas cloí leis. Impím chomh maith go ndéanfaidh an Rialtas an rud ceart sa chás seo agus go gcuirfidh sé an Bille seo faoi bhráid coiste an Tí seo chun go ndéileáilfidh muid i gceart leis agus chun go mbeidh reachtaíocht againn atá daingean agus foirfe agus a bheidh ag cloí go huile agus go hiomlán leis an méid a bhí le rá ag an gCúirt Uachtarach.
Deputy Ann Phelan: I am only too aware of the sensitive nature of this complex issue and of the split it has caused among the people of this country, but for too long previous Administrations have failed to deal with this issue, which is as relevant today as it was some years ago. I commend Deputy Clare Daly for bringing the matter before the House. I hope because other Deputies have done so that my commendation of her does not ring hollow.
When the Government was elected we made a commitment to the people that we would deal with this sensitive issue. We acknowledged the recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, subsequent to the established ruling of the Irish Supreme Court in the X case. We promised to establish an expert group to address the issue and to make recommendations to Government on how this matter should be properly addressed.
As it currently stands, abortion in this country is illegal, except where it can be proven, as a matter of probability, that there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, and that this risk can only be averted by the termination of the said pregnancy. That is the X case judgment as interpreted by the Supreme Court. In 2009 the ABC case was heard in the European Court of Human Rights. Three women had argued that it was a breach of their rights that Ireland did not provide abortion for them. The court struck out two of the cases, citing no violation of rights had taken place, and in the case of the third applicant, Ms C, the court found that Ireland had failed to respect the applicant’s private life, as there was no accessible and effective procedure to enable her to establish whether she qualified for a lawful termination of pregnancy in accordance with Irish law. The court accepted that Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the X case, is the current standing by which other cases are judged.
In June last year the Government submitted a plan to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on the ABC case and the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. In this plan there was a further commitment from the Government to establish an expert group, which would be made up of people from the appropriate medical and legal professions, and that it would be the findings of this group that would recommend where and how we should proceed. While I am pleased that the expert group is compiled of such skilled and educated professionals I hope they have spoken with or will speak with women who have physically suffered this particular trauma. Yesterday in Leinster House, with a number of other Deputies and Senators, I met some Irish women who had to go in the past to the UK for a termination. We heard their harrowing stories and what they had to go through. In the near future I hope there will be an end to those harrowing stories and that we will not have to hear them again.
The expert group was established last November and is to report back by the end of June. It would be inappropriate for the Government to pre-empt the recommendations of the expert group at this stage. We must ensure we end the practice whereby 12 women a day are forced to access procedures in the UK and elsewhere. These women who find themselves in a crisis situation are not statistics. They are our daughters, sisters, mothers and aunts, and we should not forget their partners either. All of those people are real, rational human beings caught up in an Irish solution to an Irish problem. We are being asked to legislate for a human tragedy.  This is not like formulating other legislation. This requires the most careful drafting of legislation. If we are to learn lessons from the past the ensuing debate must be calm and rational because it is such an emotive issue.
As a woman, I do not like having to vote against the Bill which, perhaps, does not go far enough in drafting adequate legislation or guidelines on this issue. The best way to deal with it is not during Private Members’ business but in a full session of the House. I hope Deputy Clare Daly will agree with me. In this case we should not pre-empt the findings of the expert group which may uncover something of importance. I advise that we await its report. That is the way I will be voting.
Deputy Tony McLoughlin: I oppose the Bill as set out by Deputy Clare Daly as I believe the fundamentals, even its Title, are flawed. The life of the mother already takes precedence in medicine, as, of course, it should. In Ireland, thankfully, we have one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world. Many of those who are pro-choice suggest young women who find themselves pregnant without adequate resources or the necessary support of a partner or family are vulnerable and at risk of taking their own lives. In the Bill, as presented, this is a reason to allow a termination with no regard for the views of a professional psychiatrist in determining the mental condition of the pregnant girl.
On 13 January the Government established an expert group to examine the judgment, as committed to in the action plan submitted to the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers in June 2011. The terms of reference have been set out clearly by the Government. The expert group will study the A, B and C v. Ireland judgment of the European Court of Human Rights and the implications for health care services to pregnant women and recommend options on how to implement the judgment taking into account all of the issues involved and the pressing need for action. Last June the Government was required to submit an action plan. This was done and it included the setting up of the aforementioned expert group. This was accepted by the court and a further report is due in October.
The programme for Government is committed to reaching all of the aforementioned stages and we await the recommendations to the Government on how the matter can be addressed properly. In the interim, the professional opinion of the doctor will determine whether there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the pregnant woman as distinct from her health. If such a risk can only be avoided by terminating the pregnancy, that is, meeting the X case criteria, a termination can lawfully occur. If the patient does not agree with her doctor’s assessment, she is free to seek a second or subsequent medical opinion under Medical Council guidelines, or she could apply to the High Court for an order directing that the necessary treatment be provided. If a doctor refuses to provide necessary life-saving treatment, the applicant could, in the first instance, seek a second opinion for the immediate management of her concerns and, as a follow-up, bring a complaint against the doctor to the Medical Council.
No prosecutions under criminal provisions relating to abortion have taken place since at least 1975 when the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions was established. While I agree the scenarios as outlined are not deemed acceptable by the European Court of Human Rights, they provide for what will happen in the interim. Deputy Clare Daly’s Bill should be rejected by the House as it masquerades behind the risk to the life of the mother. It is really an attempt by the Socialist Party to introduce full-scale abortion on demand similar to the position in the United Kingdom. In fact, a recent press release by that party on its website reads:
But we believe that it is only a first step for abortion to be legalised in Ireland in all circumstances. We have waited long enough ... Over 100,000 Irish abortions have taken place in Britain for many different reasons, none of them easy, all of them valid.
I look forward to seeing the report of Mr. Justice Ryan to the Government July next which will allow for an examination of this complex matter in the proper manner. No doubt the House will return to this subject after the summer.
Deputy Áine Collins: I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to speak to the Bill. Deputy Clare Daly has brought before the House an important issue which has been left unaddressed for a long time by successive Governments, in fact, for 20 years. Obviously, action needs to be taken. However, the Bill is not the right solution, nor is its timing right.
There is an expert group which the Government set up in January which is looking at the issue. It is considering the A, B and C v. Ireland judgment and looking at possible options on how best to implement it. Its 14 members are experts across a number of fields of law and medicine, covering psychiatric care, professional regulation and public policy. It is chaired by Mr. Justice Seán Ryan who previously oversaw compilation of the Ryan report. The legal and medical issues in the A, B and C v. Ireland case and the European Court of Human Rights judgment are complex, which was why the group was set up to provide analysis and recommendations. We must await the findings of this expert and specialist group before we decide what action may be required.
Many are frustrated by the lack of action who think this is just another working group; it is not. The Minister has committed that action will be taken. There are many, including Deputy Clare Daly, who are frustrated at the delay; however, waiting a little time longer to get this right is important. This is a complex and delicate issue and it can be hugely divisive among families and friends and in society. People on both sides hold strong opinions and emotions can run high. It is a difficult subject for many of us, but it is one about which we must talk. The debate needs to be informed and sensitive. There are many personal stories that have recently been told and what came across strongly to me was that there was a lack of support for those who had to go through this process. This is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed. This debate needs to take place and understanding and empathy need to be shown throughout.
We are lucky in so many ways. In Ireland we have one of the best records in the world in maternity care, which is so important. The Government is committed to ensuring no woman’s life will ever be put in danger. We need a response that deals with all the issues involved, from the personal to the medical and legal. That is why the working group was set up and I believe we should await its expert response for the sake of few months. I will, therefore, be opposing the Bill.
Deputy Tom Barry: I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill, against which I will be voting. I believe in preserving and protecting human life. This is an emotive and difficult issue and as such, it is easy to find merit in almost every single one of the many hundreds of representations that most Members and I have received in recent weeks. What I cannot get away from is the fact that I know of two cases in which the pre-natal diagnosis proved to be incorrect. In one case the family were told that their child would have Down’s syndrome. They had made peace with this diagnosis and after nine months were ready to welcome a child into the world with that condition. However, they were to be shocked because the child was born perfectly normal. In the second case the family were told that their baby would live for only a number of hours or days. The baby’s severe condition also had been misdiagnosed and the child is perfectly healthy today.
The Bill addresses the health of the mother, rather than of the child, but it is my understanding — I have spoken to a number of health professionals to seek their advice — that it is very rare for a medical condition to present that would leave no choice but to terminate or endanger the pregnancy to save the life of the mother. Where that is the only option, however, I would fully support that decision and, as I understand it, that stance is already taken in Irish medicine. However, there is far too much of a grey area in the Bill, as it stands. The risk of misdiagnosis is a major concern, particularly when we come to psychological and psychiatric conditions. I do not want there to be a situation where we would have abortion on demand under false pretences. As a scientist, I am well aware that there must be tolerance of errors in all that happens in science. However, errors in this instance have fatal consequences.
I support the Government’s position in opposing the Bill, as it stands. Under the programme for Government, an expert group has been set up under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Seán Ryan which will present its recommendations, I think, by mid-July. We need to wait for its report. At that stage the issue can be discussed further. We have to be careful that we do not use exceptional cases to form standards for legislative change. We have to be careful not to open the floodgates for abortion and to remember that every child is precious. We need to provide support to the mothers who find themselves in this position in a non-judgmental fashion. We need to look at all the other services that surround this, including adoption and support services, which are very important. We need to tackle the underlying causes of suicide, which is an awful malaise in this country at present. Abortion will not cure all the symptoms in the long term. We need to be careful about this.
The expert group is examining this issue. While I am glad it is being discussed, we should not jump to conclusions too quickly. Opening the floodgates to abortion in this country would, I feel, be a retrograde step.
Deputy Michelle Mulherin: I welcome the opportunity to speak on what is a very sensitive issue, particularly for women because women do not own their own personal physical integrity and sexuality in the same manner that men do. Therefore, it is an issue that has to be handled with care. I see the introduction of this Bill not only as premature but, unfortunately, as serving not to enhance any debate but just to rehash traditional entrenchment of positions. Given the country has been dogged by this issue for decades, waiting until the expert group reports back would have been more helpful and would allow dialogue across the board, not just among politicians in this Chamber.
It is a tough issue. When one thinks about it, one immediately thinks about the people affected, in particular the 4,500 women who feel they have to travel to the UK to undergo termination procedures. These are the people we represent, so it is not a case of “them and us”. As legislators in Parliament, we try to think of all our citizens and take everything into account as we make laws and decisions on behalf of the nation.
We are moving and have moved away from an Ireland where morality was shoved down people’s throats. The question is whether responsibility for people’s moral conduct falls on the shoulders of Government or whether we go down the road of talking about the personal responsibility of the individuals involved.
We have heard strong arguments why there might or should be abortion in circumstances beyond the X case, including cases of diagnosed problems with the foetus, which could see the baby die shortly after birth or during the pregnancy. There is no point in repeating the details of those sad cases. They were personal experiences and they cannot be used entirely as a basis to change what amounts to the fundamental principles of a country. Legislating purely on the back of hard cases does not necessarily make for good and proper laws.
I will be voting against the Bill, which I believe is untimely. However, it does open a debate and I welcome that aspect. There are some questions I would raise during the debate. The major objection to abortion in Ireland is religious but the rest of the Western world has no objections in this way. In the book Free and Female, dating from some decades back, Ms Barbara Seaman put abortion as part of the lifelong struggle of women for effective contraception and to be able to take control of their own bodily integrity. That is both liberal and feminist. When we legislate, we do it with an all-inclusive paradigm for our society. In short, it is not for the majority alone.
I am against abortion in any form. The grace of God is so liberating and provides so many options to get the best out of life despite our fallen nature, and we all have that. Having said that, it is an ideal to aim for. In an ideal world, there would be no unwanted pregnancies and no unwanted babies. However, we are far from living in an ideal world. An honest and a scriptural view is that things are getting harder for people, so what then for the weak in our society?
The western or First World is championing a freer and more autonomous society. The freer and more autonomous people become, the more responsibility they assume for their lives. They exercise that freedom by rejecting authority that seeks to nanny them. Therefore, the dialogue we have has to be, first and foremost, about taking responsibility, particularly for women because, in fact, they are left carrying the baby or not. In the first instance, there is a need for dialogue about not getting to the situation where abortion is contemplated. In fairness, in this day and age, nobody should be having unsafe sex, with AIDS and all the sexually transmitted diseases we know about. That has to be questioned as well. How well and how much are we respecting our own lives and our own bodies in the process?
There was certainly a time when much was prohibited on moral, religious and “the good of all” grounds. To cite an example, contraception was limited to married couples on a doctor’s say in the Ireland of not too long ago, but that is no longer the case. It is hard to believe that not so long ago, notwithstanding our knowledge of the rise of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, it was illegal to sell condoms from a vending machine to encourage safe sex, but we changed the law in that area also. What changed in our society that allowed us to get to that point where we would change the law? Moreover, how destructive was that change, if at all, given these were foundations of our religious beliefs in the past? Homosexuality is yet another example of this.
Perhaps the Irish, like the rest of the world, are maturing to the point that they can be trusted with freedom of choice. In fact, although divorce became legal, marriage still remains very popular in Ireland and throughout the world, including the USA. It could be argued that when people are free to abort, they will fight harder to keep their unborn babies by choice and they will value their pregnancies. For those who do not, and I believe them a minority, they will be free to choose what to do with no legal pressure. In other words, any legislation will not make a good Catholic choose abortion against her conscience.
Abortion as murder, and therefore sin, which is the religious argument, is no more sinful from a scriptural point of view than all other sins we do not legislate against, such as greed, hate and fornication, the latter — fornication — being probably the single most likely cause of unwanted pregnancies in this country. At the end of the day, however, it is the nature of religion to fuss over appearances above the truth and the inner state of the person.
Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I have always believed human life is sacred. As a human being, the taking of life is abhorrent to me. However, the many debates and campaigns over the past three decades by the “Yes” and “No” sides of the issue of abortion shone a light on a facet of our society which was heretofore swept under the carpet, which, as we have found, pertained to many aspects of Irish life over the years. Hearing the tragic stories from those who had made the life-changing decision to travel to obtain an abortion and the ensuing debate on this sensitive and very human issue exposed the complexities of the matter and the varying medical and other circumstances which impact on the life of the mother and her unborn child.
While I believe, as other speakers have said, that Deputy Daly’s Bill is premature, I acknowledge the previous Government ignored the responsibility not only to the women of Ireland but to the medical profession during its term of Government. In December 2009 the European Court of Human Rights accepted our Supreme Court findings in the X case and its decision is now binding on Ireland to clarify exactly when a woman may qualify for a lawful termination of her pregnancy.
The expert group was appointed by the Government as part of its action plan submitted to the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers last year, and it is now chaired by Mr. Justice Seán Ryan. This group will bring their legal and medical expertise to the A, B and C v. Ireland case. I believe their medical and legal expertise will take into account the ethical and constitutional considerations of this matter. I believe we must wait until July and I do not support the Bill on that account.
Deputy Heather Humphreys: The Medical Treatment (Termination of Pregnancy in Case of Risk to Life of Pregnant Woman) Bill seeks to address a remarkably sensitive and complex issue that conjures up various emotions, feelings and views on the issue of the termination of pregnancy in the case of a risk to the lives of pregnant women. However, as in every complex issue there is another aspect, that is, the right to life of the unborn. The Government is acutely aware of the sensitive nature of this complex issue and is currently taking steps to deal with the issue under the programme for Government. The programme states:
We acknowledge the recent ruling of the European Court of Human Rights subsequent to the established ruling of the Irish Supreme Court on the X-case. We will establish an expert group to address this issue, drawing on appropriate medical and legal expertise with a view to making recommendations to Government on how this matter should be properly addressed.
To this end an expert group was set up on 13 January made up of 14 highly qualified people, each of whom is eminent in their own field of expertise. These areas include obstetrics, psychiatry, general practice, law, professional regulation and public bodies. The committee, chaired by Mr. Justice Seán Ryan, has been asked to examine the A, B and C v. Ireland judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, to explain its implications for the provision of health care services to pregnant women in Ireland and to recommend a series of options on how to implement the judgment, taking into account the constitutional, legal, medical and ethical considerations involved in the formulation of public policy in this area. The group is due to report to Government by mid-July. I believe it would be unwise and premature to make any decisions until the group reports its findings and makes recommendations.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has confirmed that after 20 years, six successive Governments and numerous Ministers with responsibility for health this issue will finally be dealt with. The introduction of this Bill is premature and legislation may not be needed to address the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. It may be the case that regulation will be sufficient to deal with the issue. This is all the more reason to take our time and await the findings of the expert group. As with all sensitive and emotive issues, there is considerable diversity in opinion and beliefs, whether moral, religious or ethical, as well as medical and psychological considerations. This is why we should tread carefully. We all have personal views but ultimately we must legislate or regulate so that the best possible outcome can be achieved for all concerned and not simply for any given interest group. The expert group put together by Government has been selected take account of all these issues. We await its report and, for this reason, I will vote against the motion.
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: I wish to share time with several Independent Deputies. I understand the Acting Chairman has the list. It is important that Deputy Clare Daly has introduced this Bill on the issue of abortion or termination of pregnancy and that it is being discussed today in advance of the publication of the report of the expert group set up by the Government. Since we are a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, I believe the Government is obliged to remedy any breaches of it. I realise other arguments have been put forward in this regard. It will be interesting to see the findings of the expert group. I believe a timeframe has been set.
It is easy to suggest that we should wait for the expert group but we have been waiting for a long time and not only for this group. Let us consider the history of this matter in the country. It has been repeatedly delayed, leading to referendums, Supreme Court cases, various working groups and a Green Paper. There was an all-party Oireachtas group set up in November 2000. It published its report after 12 months of submissions and deliberations but failed to reach a consensus. A fifth referendum was held in 2002 and it brought about the current position. There is a good deal of divergent opinion and that is likely to continue.
I am not keen on the polarisation by groups along the lines of pro-choice and pro-life because the issue is not black and white. I wonder about the significance of some of the arguments these groups bring forward in respect of women who find themselves in the situation of having to travel to England or elsewhere to terminate a pregnancy. We know such a decision is rarely if ever taken lightly and I am mindful that there are serious consequences, including mental, emotional, psychological and physical consequences. There is no doubt these consequences are compounded by having to travel outside the country. The recent letters, accounts and testimonies in The Irish Times bore witness to these consequences.
I listened to some of the contributions last night and today. I cannot but be struck by the speeches on various sides of the House from Members to the effect that they support the idea behind the Bill but they will not vote for it because it does not go far enough. This will make for interesting debate when the review group publishes its findings and any proposed resolutions.
Like many others, I do not agree with abortion on demand and I do not like the idea of abortion being used as a form of contraception. However, there are times when a termination is needed and this reality must be recognised. It would be great if no woman had to make that decision but that is not the case in the real world. Even while we are debating the matter, some women are making the journey out of the country because they have made a decision to have a termination.
If victims of rape and children who are pregnant through incest make the decision to have a termination, then it should be respected. The case of where there is a real and substantial threat to the life of a pregnant woman is one such situation. I have one concern about the idea of involving a psychiatrist and a psychologist. This is derived from my involvement with mental health issues and the varying roles of psychiatrists in forced electroconvulsive therapy, ECT, treatment. I have some doubts about their role in any decisions. Any decision should be made in a non-judgmental situation with a doctor. This is the way forward. I hope that women from lower socioeconomic groups will not be discriminated against because of this provision.
I knew a woman some years ago who became pregnant on her fourth child and who developed a life-threatening illness. The medical advice was for a termination. She made the decision not to have the termination. The baby lived and she lost her life because she did not have the treatment in time. That decision should be protected in law as well. Whether a termination goes ahead or a woman continues with her pregnancy, the decision should be covered in law. The Bill also covers those who object to having to perform the procedure. The matter is well covered. No one would be placed under a duty to participate, and provisions are in place for this. While discussing abortion we should discuss the role of the father as well.
Although I support the Bill I am not in favour of abortion on demand and I dislike the way this issue has been hijacked by certain groups. The Bill has a narrow focus for a particular situation regardless of the legal and medical point scoring. I accept that maternity services in this country are excellent and it is the safest place to have a baby. However, the situation addressed by the Bill does arise and such a decision must be protected in law.
Deputy Mattie McGrath: I am pleased to be able to speak to the Bill today. I compliment all speakers to date. I watched the entire debate last night. Every elected Member is entitled to come to the House. It is incumbent on Members to come to the House and voice the views they hold on this very difficult and delicate issue. It has been a passionate issue during the past 25 years and long beforehand. It is not black and white and it is remarkably difficult for all involved, especially for the women, sometimes young women, and their partners, close family and friends.
I welcome the fact that the Government has set up the expert group. I am fundamentally and totally opposed to abortion except in extremely necessary cases which are life-threatening. This much is already in legislation.
There are 14 members in the expert group. We must all hope, believe and have faith in the ability of the group to examine thoroughly the implications of the cases with which they must deal. Those involved are suitably qualified and they were appointed on the basis of their qualifications. They must deal with the terms of reference of the A, B and C v. Ireland case under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Seán Ryan. We should wait until the report is issued and then hold a further reasonable and continued debate if necessary.
The life of the mother already takes precedence and rightly so. It is an emotive issue now, as it has always been. I thank the many people who contacted me from throughout the country and I thank those of all views who have contacted all of us. It is important that they contact us and that we respectfully listen to all sides.
I have spoken to medical experts and listened carefully to the contributions of Deputy Tom Barry and others. The unfortunate reality is that there have been and can be incorrect diagnoses. It was heart-rending to hear about the case to which the Deputy referred. We cannot open the floodgates in regard to abortion. Every child is special and a precious gift from God. I was quite taken aback at Deputy Clare Daly’s reference to this Bill in the context of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill. There is no comparison whatsoever to be made in that regard.
The sponsors of the Private Members’ Bill argue that the State is obliged to legislate for abortion on foot of the recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in A, B and C v. Ireland. That position is entirely false. The judgment does not require Ireland to introduce legislation for abortion. On the contrary, it fully respects the entitlement of the Irish people to determine legal policy on protecting the life of the unborn. The legislation we are discussing is based on the 1992 Supreme Court decision in the X case. Although my colleagues and I in the Technical Group work together, we all have different views on issues and can speak and vote as we wish. As such, I intend to oppose this Bill.
Any revisiting of the X case decision must take on board the evidence from new studies that abortion involves significant risk for women. In fact, the evidence over the past 20 years contradicts many of the medical assumptions on which that decision was made. On the basis of current medical evidence alone, it would be irresponsible to introduce legislation in accordance with the ruling in the X case. To do so would put at risk the life of the mother as well as ending that of the unborn child. The suggestion that pregnant women are denied necessary medical treatment because of the pro-life ethos in this country is simply untrue. In fact, Ireland is a world leader when it comes to the safety of pregnant women. For example, the latest United Nations report on the safety of mothers during pregnancy found that of all 172 countries for which estimates were given, Ireland is out in front. We have a great many problems in our health service, but this is a wonderful achievement.
Supporters of the Bill seem to be wilfully disregarding this important evidence. Many of those pushing for abortion act as though they alone speak for women going through unwanted pregnancies. However, the research from which they quote and the persons on whose behalf they choose to speak are quite selective. To be fair, that is probably true of both sides in this argument. The supporters of this proposal certainly do not speak for the thousands of women who contemplated taking their advice but changed their mind and now cannot believe they ever considered taking the life of the children they adore. We have heard from people in that situation and we see how brave they are. Nor do the supporters of this proposal speak for the thousands of women who took their advice and now deeply regret the decision to have an abortion. The emergence of groups such as Women Hurt further undermines the pro-choice claim that there are no negative consequences of abortion. Of course there are negative consequences, as there are with most decisions.
This Bill is premature in a context in which the expert group is already at work. I accept that there was a vacuum for a long time and that successive Governments failed to address it. We are dealing with a very difficult issue and I would be the first to admit that women are more entitled to speak about it and more likely to understand all of the issues than I ever could be. I am merely doing my humble best to represent my own views to this Parliament. It is incumbent on me to do so and, as such, I will be voting against the Bill.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: I congratulate Deputies Clare Daly, Joan Collins and Mick Wallace on bringing forward this Bill and opening up a debate on this very sensitive issue. They spent months carefully putting the legislation together, but would themselves accept it is not perfect. The whole purpose of having legislation pass through various Stages is to ensure the inevitable flaws are teased out and addressed. I have pointed out in the past that the same standard is expected of both Government and Opposition in bringing legislation forward, yet the former has access to the expertise available in the offices of the Chief State Solicitor and the Attorney General. I would contend that the defects in Opposition legislation can be remediated within the context of the various Stages through which Bills must pass.
Some speakers have described the Bill before us as premature, yet we have already had the 20th anniversary of the X case, in which time this Parliament has failed to place the judgment of the Supreme Court on a legislative basis. If we take our role as legislators seriously, we must do what is expected of us. Since the X case decision, abortion has been legal in circumstances where, as set out by the court, “it can be established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy”. The ratification of the eighth amendment to the Constitution in 1983 followed a very divisive debate in which abortion was presented as a black and white issue. That amendment stated:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
It was not until the X case that it emerged that the right to travel was constitutionally dubious. That case involved a 14 year old girl who became pregnant as a result of a criminal offence and whose parents sought to bring her to England for a termination. The ensuing debate encouraged a less black and white position on the issue and the emergence of greater understanding of and compassion for women in such situations. The debate continues and was enhanced this week by the great bravery of the women who spoke openly about their very destructive experiences of having to travel abroad for an abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. Their perspectives offer us a more nuanced understanding of the issues and are helping to shape public opinion. I recall Martyn Turner’s cartoon in The Irish Times at the time of the X case showing a child holding a rag doll caged into a map of Ireland. The cartoon referred to the child as interned, which is essentially what it amounted to.
In 1992 three constitutional amendments were put to the people, two of which were passed. The X case and the subsequent C case generated considerable legal debate about the medical and psychological evidence relating to abortion. The continuing uncertainty regarding the precise legal position presents enormous difficulties for the medical profession and may lead to more cases coming before the courts. In 1995 and 1996 a constitutional review group chaired by Dr. T.K. Whitaker confirmed the need for legislation to clarify the circumstances in which abortions may legally be performed in the State. In the absence of legislative action we have given the responsibility in this matter to the courts at a time of crisis for the women concerned. In the X and C cases a 14 year old and 13 year old, respectively, were involved. We in this country are very good at ordering reviews, but reviews often do not produce results. We had a major constitutional review in the 1990s, which produced a Green Paper, but nothing happened as a consequence. Instead the issue is left to ebb and flow. The debates that preceded the establishment of those constitutional reviews and the debates that took place whenever a crisis emerged saw promises of action but no subsequent delivery.
The four women who told their stories this week were incredibly brave. A continuing dialogue on the issues they raised is very welcome in informing the debate on the matter. The Minister has stated his commitment that the Government will not fail to address this issue. However, the extent of polarisation on this issue between the two parties comprising the Government is evident. An opportunity existed to take this legislation and mould it on Committee Stage in a thoughtful way when Members had the time to so do. It could have been informed by the expert group, on completion of its deliberations, without the unnecessary delay that will now take place. Instead, what will happen is the expert group will make its report, after which there will be another debate. Moreover, I have heard this could be dealt with by some means other than legislation. At some point, however, Members must take responsibility for making the laws and for determining the sets of guidance to be given to the courts, even in this extremely limited fashion, and I accept this Bill does not go far enough.
Deputy John Halligan: In refusing to face up to its responsibilities to address this legislative void that prevents constitutionally-mandated safe and legal terminations of pregnancy, the Government simply is turning a blind eye to those silent victims and is accepting what one could call abortion tourism as a viable solution. That is precisely what is being done. I remind Members that 20 years after the Supreme Court ruled that a suicidal pregnant teenager had the right to an abortion because there was a real and substantial risk to her life, it is shocking that successive Governments have failed to legislate for the X case. Only last year, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a woman had her rights violated because the Government had failed to legislate for the X case but still no legislation is in place.
Women who are unwell in their pregnancy should not be obliged to leave their country to safeguard their health but that is precisely what women in Ireland must do every week. Moreover, medical professionals in Ireland should be able to fulfil their duty, as many of them wish to do, to protect the health of such women by providing abortions. The people have given the Government the mandate to allow women the right to travel outside the State for abortion, to allow information about abortion to be available within the State and, crucially for this Bill, not to remove the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion. In so doing, a majority of the people have demonstrated their support for abortion in line with the X case. Depending on how the Government Members vote on this Bill, it would be or is abhorrent for the Government to continue to pursue the attitude adopted by previous Administrations by engaging in delay tactics, such as commissioning reports from expert committees, when a majority of people already clearly are in favour of allowing access to abortion in cases in which the life of the mother is in danger. I can only view the establishment of the present commission as a tactic of appeasement towards a small group of fundamentalists in the country and the church. The Government is washing its hands of the matter and is behaving like Pontius Pilate. Its members are not man or woman enough to state what it wishes to do. When the aforementioned commission makes its decision, the Government can then state it will do what the commission recommended. Where is the courage from the so-called liberals in the Labour Party and Fine Gael? It is gone as they are doing no better than did the previous Government. The psychological distress due to rape or incest is well documented and is further magnified by a resultant pregnancy. It is merciless of any Government to prolong the suffering of someone who is a victim of a heinous crime and for each day the present position is prolonged, 12 women leave this country. The commission has been established since last November but Members do not know when it will make its report, which must come back to the Dáil. Consequently, another year will elapse and the Government is prepared to see hundreds if not thousands of women who are in pain, distress and suffering leave this country.
Someone mentioned that were abortion to be introduced, the floodgates would be opened. However, the floodgates already are open as thousands of people leave the country every year to have abortions because of our inability to uphold the human rights of the individual. Ireland’s proximity to countries in which safe abortions are legal has for far too long allowed Governments simply to transport the problem abroad and this will continue until this commission makes its report. This has a consequence because what are those who lack the financial resources to obtain an abortion abroad to do? Members should consider what is being done to women, whose human rights are being walked upon in Ireland. Are they aware that many abortion clinics in the United Kingdom do not prescribe the medical abortion pill to non-residents due to follow-up requirements? This means that as a result, surgical abortion often is the only option open to Irish women. Moreover, the fear of judgment by some doctors and others can lead to a lack of post-abortion care uptake and further mental anguish. I have to hand some figures released under freedom of information legislation — the Minister of State opposite may have them — that shocked me. They revealed the Irish Customs and Excise authorities seized 1,216 packs of DIY abortion pills that had been ordered online. Presumably, this enforcement may have prevented 1,216 pills from getting to those who ordered them but how many further orders got through for women to attempt home abortions without medical supervision? What we are doing to women is outrageous and this issue has been neglected for too long.
I conclude by noting I am from Waterford, which is close to the port of Rosslare. One can travel from Rosslare to Fishguard, which is the cheapest way to get to Great Britain. Two years ago, before my election to the Dáil, I spoke to a 19-year old woman who had been obliged to endure a three and a half hour sailing on a ferry in January. Anyone who has sailed on that ferry in the middle of winter would have known she would be physically sick both on the way over and the way back. Moreover, it is intended to allow this to continue to happen for at least another year. Where is the Government’s courage? Where is the courage of the so-called liberals in the Labour Party — I note there are very few in Fine Gael — to stand up and be counted? The Labour Party should not allow Fine Gael to dominate it again, as it has been doing on all other issues since the formation of the current Dáil. The Labour Party should stand its ground — as its members stated they would — for the thousands of women who will be left distressed until this so-called commission reverts with its report.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: I find it utterly incredible that anyone could have suggested — as have a number of Deputies — that this Bill is premature. It appears incredible that 20 years have passed since the X case. I first became active in politics about that issue around that time and my views on the issue were not then formed. I did not really know what I thought but when the X case emerged, my views became very clear. This was because the X case demonstrated the utterly inhuman situation that pertained in this State, whereby a 14-year old girl who had suffered the heinous crime of rape could be criminalised for seeking to terminate that pregnancy. Moreover, at a time when her mental health meant there was a real and substantial threat of suicide, the State sought to criminalise her and her family for seeking to terminate the pregnancy. All the abstract and moralistic discussions surrounding this issue were cleared away and the human reality of crisis pregnancy, particularly in cases in which there was a threat to a woman’s life — in this case a teenage girl’s life — made it clear for people in this country that at the very least, which is all this Bill proposes, in the case of a threat to a woman’s life, she should be given the right to make that decision herself and this State should support her and provide for her in making that decision. Could anything be simpler or more straightforward than that in the case of a threat to a woman’s life, her decision and her right to choose should be upheld? It is simply extraordinary that in the 20 years since that decision was confirmed in referendum by the people, Governments have been too cowardly to implement the will of the people and to introduce some degree of humanity when it comes to a threat to a woman’s life when faced with a crisis pregnancy.
I pay tribute to Deputies Clare Daly, Joan Collins and Mick Wallace and all the other activists who worked on putting together the Bill. I also pay tribute to the four women who came to Leinster House yesterday to highlight the tragic human reality of what it is like to become pregnant and discover that the foetus has an abnormality which is incompatible with life. This is a terrible and tragic situation for parents to find themselves in and I have personal experience of it because my former partner and I had a daughter who was born with a genetic abnormality which was incompatible with life. The type of situation to which I refer is an awful one for anybody to experience. In such a situation who, other than the mother, has the right to make the choice about what should be done? Who else would claim that right? People state they have their own views on this matter and they are welcome to them, but how could we do other than give to women who find themselves in the type of situation to which I refer the right to make decisions on their own behalf? To do anything else would be inhuman. That to which I refer is all that is being requested in the Bill.
Women are being forced to travel overseas at huge cost and to the massive detriment of their psychological and physical health and well-being to access the relevant services. Some women who are suffering from cancer and other life-threatening diseases are being obliged to travel by boat to alien places with which they are not familiar and in which they have no access to support. The financial cost involved for them is huge. What is being done is absolutely inhuman.
Many Labour Party Deputies built their political careers on championing the right to choose. They also spent many years demanding that legislation be introduced to deal with the judgment handed down in the X case. However, they are now playing politics with this issue and kicking the can down the road such that thousands more women who will find themselves in the terrible and tragic circumstances to which I refer will be obliged to sneak off in the dead of night and travel across the sea. It is not easy for women to cope with situations of this kind and it is not right that they are being denied support for their choices by the authorities in the State.
I appeal to those in the Labour Party not to play politics with the legislation or make excuses about its proceeding further. If they agree with the spirit of the legislation — I cannot understand how they could do anything else, particularly as they have for many years been saying what we on this side are now saying — they should allow it to pass Second Stage. If it requires amendment and further development, they should allow this to happen on Committee Stage. They should not kick the can down the road or sweep this issue under the carpet again. If they do, thousands of Irish women will continue to suffer and be treated as criminals and with inhumanity by the State. I appeal to Labour Party Deputies to support the Bill and encourage their colleagues in government to do so also.
Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Róisín Shortall): I thank Deputy Clare Daly and her colleagues for raising this very important matter and giving the Government the opportunity to restate its commitment to the expeditious implementation of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of A, B and C v. Ireland. I also thank the Deputies on all sides of the House who have spoken on this issue for their thoughtful contributions. It is a measure of the maturity of this House that we have been able to engage in a debate which has largely been free of rancour. I commend Deputy Clare Daly for raising this matter and giving us the opportunity to discuss this critically important national issue with which — however late in the day — we are all trying to grapple.
As the Minister for Health stated, the Government shares the concern expressed by Deputy Clare Daly in the Bill that pregnant women whose lives are at risk can access appropriate medical treatment, including lawful termination of pregnancy. We have all been touched by the heartbreaking stories we have heard during the debate and that have been reported in the media in recent days and by the courage of the four women who have come forward with their stories. One can only imagine the sadness and sorrow they have experienced. As matters stand, however, their circumstances do not qualify them for a lawful termination of pregnancy in this country. This fact would not change, even if Deputy Clare Daly’s Bill were to be enacted. This gives rise to a number of wider issues and challenges up to which we all must face. We must set about addressing these issues and challenges. The Bill does not do so and I am not sure whether what will emerge from the expert group will do so either. We must recognise, therefore, that the particular appalling circumstances the four women to whom I refer and many others have found themselves in must be addressed at all levels within society.
It is important to clarify that women in circumstances of the type under discussion are certainly entitled to a range of other services. I refer to appropriate post-abortion services and care. As stated in the Irish Medical Council’s ethical guidelines, medical practitioners in Ireland have a duty to provide care, support and follow-up services for women who have abortions abroad. In addition, the HSE funds the provision of post-abortion medical check-up and counselling services. The executive has been rolling out a campaign to increase awareness among women that post-abortion services are available in Ireland. Such services have been available for a number of years. The abortion aftercare campaign which consists of targeted online and print advertisements encourages women who have had abortions to attend for post-abortion medical check-ups and also promotes the availability of free post-abortion counselling. I urge all women who have had terminations of pregnancy to avail of these services, to which they are entitled and which are provided free of charge.
As Deputies are aware, the risk of maternal death is the only ground for lawful termination of pregnancy in Ireland. In the X case ruling a majority of the members of the Supreme Court held that where it was established, as a matter of probability, that there was a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother and that this real and substantial risk could be averted only by the termination of her pregnancy, such a termination was lawful. This risk to the life of the mother includes the risk of suicide. When, therefore, a termination of pregnancy is required as medical treatment to save a woman’s life, it can be lawfully provided. In fact, the Irish Medical Council already has guidelines in place to this effect. They also make it clear that a risk to life includes a risk to the life of the mother arising from a threat of suicide.
The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the A, B and C v. Ireland case confirmed that Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution was in conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights. However, what the court found was that there was no accessible and effective procedure to enable a pregnant woman to establish whether she qualified for a lawful termination of pregnancy in accordance with Irish law. It ruled that “no criteria or procedures have been ... laid down in Irish law ... by which that risk is to be measured or determined, leading to uncertainty”.
I agree with those who have been critical of the fact that, as a country, we have failed to address this issue. Many years have been lost with regard to the commitment to legislate for the judgment handed down in the X case. It is, however, quite unfair to criticise the Government for delaying matters, particularly as it has only been in office for just over one year. The expert group has been established. We have made it very clear that we want the expert group to report within the six-month period. As soon as that report is available, action will be taken to taken to legislate in accordance with its recommendations. I assure the House that there will be no further delay and as soon as the expert group reports at the end of June, the Government will be absolutely committed to taking action in the area.
Deputy Joe Higgins: I commend Deputies Clare Daly and Joan Collins of the United Left Alliance, as well as Independent Deputy Mick Wallace, on bringing forward this Bill, the Medical Treatment (Termination of Pregnancy in Case of Risk to Life of Pregnant Woman) Bill 2012. By doing so they have insisted that a real debate would take place in Dáil Éireann on the critical needs of women in Ireland whose lives are threatened as a result of pregnancy and who need a termination of pregnancy for the safeguarding of their lives but are denied this in the State at present.
The proposers have said that they have limited the Bill to such a scope because of the constitutional prohibition on the woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy in any other circumstances. They wanted to give the Government the opportunity to accept the Bill. I take issue strongly with the contributions of two Labour Deputies last night who claimed they would not support the Bill because it did not go far enough. They did not elaborate in an honest fashion as to how far they wanted it to go. Were they implying that they would support the right of a woman to choose in all circumstances? They did not say. The proposers designed the Bill to come within the constitutional limitations so that the Government could accept it and if improvements could be made by agreement, the Bill could be passed. If the Bill allowed for a woman’s right to choose, which should be the case in this State, the Government would have immediately seized this as a reason for rejecting the Bill on constitutional grounds, giving the Labour Deputies another excuse to prevaricate.
I cannot take seriously those Deputies who say they will not support the Bill because it does not go far enough. If that were the case, the obvious action would be to support the Bill, which addresses one very difficult and critical issue, and then campaign for constitutional change. The Government should accept this Bill and the area it covers, and it could widen the terms of reference of the expert group to deal with the broader issues of the thousands of women forced to leave this country for terminations of pregnancy. That is the approach taken by the proposers of this Bill, which is correct.
Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan: This Bill does exactly what it says on the tin, allowing for the termination of pregnancy in the case of risk to the life of a pregnant woman. How anyone would have a problem with that is beyond me. Six successive Governments have not done anything about this and the Minister of State, Deputy Shortall, has said the parties have only been in government for a year. She has a short memory, as the parties have been in government at some stage over the past 20 years and did nothing about the issue.
When the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, spoke, I had some hope of a response to the passionate speeches made by my colleagues, and he showed that he had a bit of a heart. Disappointingly, after that I saw one person after another in Fine Gael make it quite clear that the status quo will not be changed by this Government, which is very sad. Why am I surprised? Listening to the combined argument of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the matter, it should be no surprise as this country — those parties have continuously run it — has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. Heels have been and still are being dragged on redress for women who suffered unnecessary symphysiotomies. Heels were also dragged on the issues of women having to leave work when they were married, contraception and divorce. In the past those parties have had a problem with extra-marital sex, and we have heard that a member of a Government party has a problem with fornication. Where are we going? It is quite clear that Archbishop McQuaid’s crozier is still firmly around people’s necks.
There is a bit of hope as the Labour Party has been more positive, and comments from its members have given me some hope. One comment made to Deputy Daly by a Labour Deputy showed that he was fully supportive of her Bill. Nevertheless, we have heard elements in the Labour Party argue the Bill does not go far enough. If the Bill survives today’s vote, I hope the Government will continue to support it after the expert group reports, but it will not. If those in the Labour Party are worried that it does not go far enough, they should remember that the Government will not support the recommendations of the expert group. I have listened to the comments today and the Labour Party should remember them. It is a bit like a child being offered three spuds by his mammy at dinner but he wants four or else he will eat nothing. Generally, the child in that position will have no dinner. The Labour Party will end up with no dinner either and get nothing of what it wants. It will end up with the Fine Gael philosophy which is driven by Archbishop McQuaid’s ideas.
Deputy Clare Daly: Deputy Flanagan is always a hard act to follow. It is a welcome development that we have spent almost three hours discussing for the first time in the State the issue of abortion rights in a relatively positive way, albeit within limited scope. The discussion has been generally cordial and courteous, with a good tone and engaging debate. People constructively engaged in a balanced way and the fact that we are discussing the issue in the first place has helped to move it on, perhaps in society at large more than in here, if the comments from previous speakers are taken into account. The issue has touched every family and has often gone on with stigma and without discussion. I am very happy to be part of bringing such matters into the open.
Society is in a very different place from where it was even two decades ago. It is a scandal that this House and its legislators have failed to keep abreast of the issues and put sufficient legislation in place in accordance with the wishes of the people. It is good that we have heard different views, and that is part of democracy at work. There is nothing wrong with that and I respect other people’s opinions. In voicing such opinions, people must back them up with facts, and some inaccuracies have been aired which I will correct. It is our responsibility in these debates to make informed contributions.
There was an argument that our Bill will open the floodgates and lead to a position of abortion on demand, but that is a ludicrous assertion. The Bill is incredibly limited and I am very sorry about that. I would like to see it with more scope but it solely provides for permissible abortion and guidelines for same in Ireland where the life of a woman is at risk, including the risk of suicide. There is no evidence that abortion being available increases the rate of abortion. The Irish abortion rate is just as high as it is in countries where abortion is freely available but the procedures do not happen here.
A number of Deputies referred to maternal mortality in hospitals. I am very proud of those hospitals and the issues are not linked, so it disingenuous to tie them together. There are countries with maternal mortality rates equal to our own where abortion is freely available. Our Bill will not affect the mortality rates and it is more likely they will be affected by cutbacks being proposed by the Government for the likes of the Rotunda, which has a capacity for 7,000 births in a year and saw 9,000 births last year. That hospital will see even more births this year and such issues, rather than this Bill, will jeopardise maternal mortality rates.
I reiterate the point made last night. The only reason there have not been more cases of women dying as a result of our inaction is that they travel, often when they are sick or unwell. Lives have been saved, not by this Parliament but by the safety valve of travel.
I wish to correct the mistaken idea that abortion has a negative psychological impact on women. This view is bandied around as if it is an accepted fact. The Royal College of Psychiatrists in Britain has carried out the most comprehensive review of this issue and its findings are clear. The rates of mental health problems among women with unwanted pregnancies are the same for those who have an abortion and those who keep their child. While some women who have abortions regret doing so, so too do some women who give up their children for adoption and some couples who delay having children only to find that they have left it too late. Is regret not part of life? We are not proposing that the solution to these tragedies is to introduce a ban on adoption or the compulsory rearing of children when couples are young. Why should it be any different in dealing with the issue of abortion? All the State can do in this scenario is provide supports for citizens to ensure that, where possible, they will not be faced with the challenge of unwanted pregnancy. Measures are needed to provide for sex education, proper contraception, early screening and early intervention and to ensure people are free from violence and enjoy economic circumstances that are sufficient to allow them to raise their children outside of poverty. However, when a woman needs to make a decision about an unwanted pregnancy, the role of the State should not be to interfere but to support and stand by her. The decision she must make is never easy and is always made for the best reasons in the circumstances. Instead of judging and condemning people, we should be dealing with these issues.
The Technical Group is aware and regrets that its Bill does not deal with all circumstances. The reason is precisely as Deputy Joe Higgins outlined, namely, that under current constitutional provisions, we can only legislate for the scenario addressed in the Bill. The most striking aspect of this debate is that every speaker has admitted, albeit grudgingly in a few cases, that we have to legislate for the judgment in the X case. Most have also acknowledged that this is the wish of the people and that such legislation is long overdue. While it is welcome to note that this is the viewpoint of the overwhelming majority of those who contributed to the debate, it raises the question as to why Deputies, as legislators, will not support the Bill. Only two reasons were cited for their failure to do so. According to the Minister, the Bill contains legal errors in the sections dealing with consent and penalties, respectively. We are open to having the two relevant sections amended. I note that the other sections dealing with the criteria for termination, right of appeal, duty of care on the medical establishment and so forth appear to be fine, which is great. In that case, why not allow the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage at which point it could be amended? Legal errors are not a sufficient reason to oppose the legislation.
The more favoured excuse used by speakers for failing to support the Bill was the existence of the expert group. We were told it should be allowed to get on with its work and that we had to await its findings which would be more comprehensive in scope than the Bill. The risk in taking such an approach is that we have heard similar arguments made many times during the years. In such cases we had much talk and nothing was delivered. The Dáil will be in recess when the expert group reports in July and will have a busy schedule when it returns. For this reason, it will be at least one year before alternative legislation is put before the House. Deputies who do not vote in favour of the Bill are condemning women and their doctors to exactly the same circumstances that have pertained for the past 20 years, in other words, women with unwanted pregnancies will be forced to travel. This is not good enough, particularly in the case of the Labour Party.
We want the Bill to be improved. To be fair to the Ministers of State, Deputies Kathleen Lynch and Róisín Shortall, they accepted that the expert group would not address broader issues than those addressed in the Bill. For example, it will not deal with the issue of access to abortion for medical reasons. Some Labour Party Deputies used this argument as a reason for not supporting the Bill. Their reasons do not stand up.
I accept the bona fides of many Deputies who agree with the position the Technical Group has adopted. As Opposition Deputies, we have limited means available to us to address matters such as this. On the other hand, the Deputies opposite are in government. After years of campaigning on various issues, what is the point of not using the opportunity presented by coming to power to implement and be a force for change?
I listened with horror to the very poor contributions made by Fianna Fáil Deputies last night. They exposed the reason that party has never delivered social change. The many young men in Fianna Fáil should take note that their party will go nowhere if it continues with its current approach. We had higher hopes of other parties. I ask Labour Party Deputies to look into themselves on this issue. In fairness, however, some members of the Cabinet spoke well in the debate. The Minister for Health, for instance, indicated he would not allow this to be the seventh consecutive Government to ignore the issue of abortion. I honestly and sincerely hope he is right. The expert group, the main reason most Government Deputies cited for not supporting the Bill, will produce its findings in a number of months. If the Government does not deliver on the commitments given by its Deputies in this debate, the Technical Group will return to the issue. We will also push the Bill to a vote.
That said, the House has done a service in airing these key issues which have been buried in society for too long. I look forward to discussing the issue again on the basis of a more enhanced provision than that which we are trying to make available today.
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