Wednesday, 18 April 2012
Private Members' Business: Medical Treatment (Termination of Pregnancy in Case of Risk to Life of Pregnant Woman) Bill 2012: Second Stage
Mick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
This legislation is 20 years too late. It is hard to credit that successive Governments have failed to deal with the consequences of the Supreme Court judgment in the X case. It is not as if it was a revolutionary judgment even at the time. The Supreme Court found that abortion is legal in Ireland when a woman's life is at risk, including from the threat of suicide. My colleagues and I have brought forward this Bill to provide a legislative basis for the legal termination of a pregnancy in the very limited circumstances where such treatment is deemed necessary to prevent the woman's death. We know it is not enough, but it is a start. Six successive Governments have refused to make that start. We hope that failure will be addressed this week.
The right to access abortion is a fundamental human rights issue. The Supreme Court decision 20 years ago was a rational one. It was compassionate and humane. It was the right thing to do. Only a few weeks ago in this House we discussed the horrific nature of symphysiotomy, a violent act carried out on the bodies of women who encountered difficulties in childbirth. It was a violent act driven by a warped religious ideology, designed to maximise the child-bearing opportunities of the mother with no regard to her future health or suffering. This was something that took place in Ireland from the 1940s to the early 1990s, which is difficult to credit. What action has this Parliament taken to redress the wrong done to those women whose lives were irreparably damaged? What has this male dominated Parliament done to put an end to the urge of men to control women's bodies? Six successive Governments have refused to do anything about the Supreme Court judgment in the X case. The unfairness and inequality which characterise Ireland's abortion laws are replicated in the Government's approach to tackling the economic crisis. Just as our extremely restrictive abortion laws disproportionately and adversely impact upon the most vulnerable who cannot afford to leave the State to avail of the service, the political choices made in the last budget targeted the least well-off in our society, such as lone parents and those with large families and young children.
In 2005, three women known as A, B and C initiated a challenge to Ireland's restrictive abortion laws at the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the criminalisation and inaccessibility of abortion in this State endangered their health, well-being and life and was a breach of their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. After much deliberation, the grand chamber of the court announced its unanimous finding, in December 2010, that Ireland's failure to implement legislation on abortion constituted a violation of the convention. These women asserted that Ireland's abortion laws did not reflect the position of the people. The referenda in 1992 and in 2002 were attempts by the then Governments to restrict abortion in the State. Both were rejected by the people. The appellants argued that Ireland's abortion laws are inconsistent with international consensus. Forty-three out of 47 Council of Europe countries permit abortion to protect a woman's health. We are in the dark ages on this issue.
The existing restrictions are ineffective. They have not done away with abortion but merely served to export the problem to England. Moreover, the situation is discriminatory. Women travelling to Britain for abortion services risk medical complications because of later, and therefore often surgical, abortions. A woman travelling abroad for an abortion must first sort out a range of issues, including finding the money, organising child care, negotiating time off work, and making travel and accommodation arrangements. While dealing with all of this, time is moving on and the agony increases. Such women are more likely to avail of surgical rather than medical abortion to shorten the period of stay abroad. Medical abortion is a less invasive procedure but involves a treatment period of three or four days, which is not an option for most women travelling abroad from this country. Likewise, Irish women are less likely to receive pre and post-abortion medical care due to the limited time most can stay abroad. On top of all of this, the stress involved for women choosing abortion is further exacerbated by the need to leave their own country to avail of an abortion. Four such incredible women told their stories to the media and to Members of the Oireachtas this week. These strong women spoke of how much it pained them to have to leave the State and the feelings of fear and stigma arising from the fact that abortion is criminalised here. They described the secrecy element, the sense of isolation and the lack of support.
My colleagues and I have received a large number of e-mails and letters from people caught in this terrible situation. One of these letters tells a story which many may not have heard. I will read it out in full:
Please take time to read this e-mail and consider why abortion should be legalised in Ireland. I am not saying it should be fully legalised, but I also do not think it is enough just to legalise it where the mother's life is in danger. I will explain as I go. I had always been someone who said I would never have an abortion. Unfortunately, I did not know what lay ahead for me. I was with my husband ten years when we decided it was time to have children. Much to our delight, after ten months, I finally fell pregnant. I did everything right, took perfect care of myself as I was trying to conceive. My bump grew and I began to feel my lovely baby kick me and move about.
I finally received an appointment for my first scan at 22 weeks, on Christmas week in 2010, and here it all changed. When I had my scan I was told that my beautiful daughter had a condition called anencephaly, a neural tube defect which means part of her brain and skull had not formed properly while everything else had grown perfectly normally. The short of it was that our daughter had no hope of surviving and would die without a doubt. If she survived the pregnancy, she would probably die at birth or within a few hours. To say we were heartbroken is an understatement. We were told in Ireland that I had to carry my baby to full term. I was told I would not be brought in early; in fact, I would be left to go two weeks over. I would not be given a Caesarean section and would have to go through the labour. Alternatively, I could travel to the UK to terminate our pregnancy.
How would I cope emotionally? How could I keep going day by day and feel the baby inside me? How would I deal with the questions from well-meaning people: "When is your baby due?" How could I watch my perfect baby struggle and die in my arms? After much deliberation I felt it would be too difficult to continue with the pregnancy knowing our daughter was going to die and opted for a termination in the UK on New Year's Eve 2010, at 24 weeks. Because of our laws I was not allowed to receive any help from the hospital here. I was given one recommendation of a well known UK clinic and we went with this. I was treated so coldly. They had no understanding that I did not want to terminate this pregnancy. I wanted this baby so much but she was going to die. No medical intervention could prevent this.
It was the most difficult thing in my life as I left my home, my comfortable surroundings, and travelled to a strange country. I was under time pressure because of how far along I was because it took so long to get scanned.
This clinic had a policy of not allowing me to see the baby - this is something I have lived with and regretted since - I have found it very hard to cope with the fact that I was not allowed to see my daughter when I know so many others ... were.
This situation was difficult enough to cope with without having the added problems of travelling to the UK. I had to leave my own local hospital where I felt safe, where I knew I could be looked after. I had horrible cold care in the UK. You hear so many horror stories of terminations, if my labour was induced early in my local hospital, I knew I would have been safe.
On the advice of the clinic, I was told I could book flights home for the same day of the termination. I have since been told this was a very dangerous [thing to do as to travel after a surgical operation is not recommended]. ... I could have had all my family around me. I could have had my own comforts. I could have seen my lovely daughter and buried her close to me. Now, I will never know what she looked like and I have no place to visit her.
I have tears streaming down my face as I write this e-mail because it truly was the most hurtful thing I ever had to do in my life. I felt I could not tell most people the truth in case I was judged. I felt wrong and dirty for travelling abroad. I felt like I was "getting rid" ... of my baby - she was my much longed for and loved daughter. Even though I never met her, I had her life planned from the day I found out I was pregnant. I had hopes and dreams for her and for our family life together and to cope with all that being snatched away from me was difficult enough without my own health system turning their back on me. Thankfully ... I now have a beautiful newborn baby boy whom I cherish.