I would like to welcome the Minister to the House for this vital debate on this very important piece of legislation. I wish to make it clear at the outset that I will be voting with my conscience and with the Government on this issue. Given the intense level of scrutiny on this piece of legislation, and the huge amount of correspondence I have received, I wish to set out why I in particular am voting for this.
Over the past year, I have met many men and women both inside and outside of Leinster House who have sought to discuss this issue with me especially from the so-called pro-life side. I have also met many who are mystified as to why there is so much sound and fury surrounding what they see as a simple piece of legislation which works to enshrine practices that were already the case in many hospitals into law.
I would have initially felt that guidelines would be sufficient but as the debate has developed I have become firmly of the view that there is a need to legislate for what is after all the current legal position following the X case.
In years to come, when we look back on this legislation, we will realise that putting it on the Statue Book was historic. The debate has been, and will continue to be, noteworthy, but I don’t believe the outcome will be. When I first read the legislation, what struck me most was the balance: there has been an attempt in framing this legislation to ensure they legislate for the Supreme Court verdict and nothing more.
Those who are heavily on the pro-choice side see this as not going far enough, while those heavily on the pro-life side see it as going too far but, in the grey area in the middle, that moderate place where most of Ireland resides, this legislation makes perfect sense. And that’s who we legislate on behalf of: majorities, not extremes.
The controversial aspect of the legislation relates to suicidal intent and, while I have some concerns about this and the lack of checks on it. I would ask the Minister for some clarification as to what he intends to do if, as feared by many but in reality probably not likely to materialize, a huge volume of women present to 3 consultants in these circumstances.
Those who have opposed the legislation will absolutely be watching these figures, and will certainly be working to flag and highlight any potential abuses of this section of the legislation. Only time will tell how it will pan out, however I believe it will only ever be used in a handful of cases per year.
In some cases, people have outlined their fears about how this will “open the door”. These fears are not helped – indeed, they are encouraged – by some on the extremes. I have been disappointed by the actions taken by some individuals and groups opposing the Bill. The idea of using images of TDs, along with emotive slogans, on posters up and down the country, is one that I find disturbing.
More disturbing still is the protesting outside politician’s family homes. As we live in a democracy, public discourse on legislation is naturally both welcomed and encouraged – however, I would have to say that these tactics have only served to make many of my colleagues feel more resolute in their support of the legislation. There is a way to engage people with your argument and make them see the merits of what you’re saying, and many did go about their business in this way, however, it’s also true to say that the pro-life cause was often undermined by the actions of some, and that is disappointing.
I received an email in the last few days which was one of many which said that – and I quote – “the name given ‘protection of life during pregnancy’ is repugnant. It is logically incorrect as it specifically allows for the destruction of an unborn life. It should be called “the termination of a pregnancy and related life in order to preserve the so-called superior life of a mother bill”. I find this offensive.
I wonder how much the author of the email thought about what he was saying here. How much he actually has a clue about what it might be like to be in a situation such as would rise to the conflict of the rights of these two lives. While obviously men have a huge part to play in life – the creation of it, the protection of it and the potential destruction of it. If this man were faced with a situation where his own life or that of an unborn foetus were in conflict such that only one could survive I doubt he would refer to a woman’s life being the “so-called superior life”.
The Bill restates the position on abortion in Ireland and once again state that the unborn child has rights equal to that of all citizens. Its only aim is to place this legal framework on an already existing narrow provision created by Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, which was interpreted by the Supreme Court over twenty years ago to allow for the lawful termination of a pregnancy where it is established that there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the woman and that risk can be only averted by a termination. The Bill remains within the parameters of the Constitution and actually serves to strengthen the current legal position which effectively means one psychologist can decide that a woman is suicidal and the obstetricians would terminate her pregnancy.
One aspect of this which has created much debate and provoked a lot of analysis is the risk of loss of life from suicide. It is therefore worth pointing out the effort which the Government has taken to introduce safeguards. Under the proposed legislation, three doctors will be required to take part in the assessment process, which when combined with the woman’s GP, means they will have been assessed by four doctors. Currently, it is the case that just one doctor is needed in some cases.
I welcome the fact that the Bill also contains provisions to allow for conscientious objection in the case of medical personnel – I think this is important, and that nobody should be forced to do something against their conscience. As an additional safeguard, the Bill contains provisions to ensure the law is faithfully followed and that there is scope for review.
In discussing this issue, we should stay cognisant of the fact that currently there are around 30 terminations which take place in Irish hospitals annually without any coherent regulation. With this Bill, safeguards are introduced and checks are now in place. In addition to that, approximately 3,000 women travel abroad each year – and this is, all too often, conveniently ignored in any debate around this. In some cases, the terminations take place in back-street clinics without any regulation and, in some cases, they have a detrimental effect on the women’s health thereafter. These are the reasons why I believe the Bill deserves support, as it ensures protection of women during pregnancy.
I am confident that this Bill will give legal clarity, which has been absent to date under Irish law, to women and doctors. A sad reality, but one which must be faced, is that sometimes medical intervention is required to save a woman’s life in pregnancy and I would not be apologetic for this. What the Bill seeks to do is to ensure clarity for women and medical professionals in respect of their existing rights – all of which exist in some form but are mired in uncertainty at present.
The argument that there will be a massive increase in the amount of women claiming that they are suicidal is an insult to women. That argument also majorly undermines the psychiatric profession. The reality is that the legislation is sufficiently restrictive that I truly believe that if a woman were feeling genuinely suicidal she would be more likely to travel to the UK than put herself through this restrictive process.
The absolute rarity of the situation also has to be recognised. Because of the lack of statistics there is no clear idea of the amount of women who present in these circumstances but it is rare and I have put it on the record before that my own mother is a psychiatrist for 35 years with a very varied busy practice and has never once come across a case where a woman was pregnant and suicidal.
This strict legislation will outline the circumstances in which a medical termination is permissible – that is, where there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as opposed to the health, of a woman as the result of a pregnancy – and it upholds the equal right to life of both the mother and her unborn baby under the Constitution. I firmly believe that this Bill will protect the lives of both mothers and their unborn babies in the future and, as such, I lend it my support.