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
Olivia Mitchell (Dublin South, Fine Gael)
I begin by thanking Deputy Clare Daly for bringing this issue before the House. I fully understand and share her impatience and frustration regarding the fact that action has not been forthcoming on this matter before now. As the Minister outlined, the Bill will not be supported by those on this side of the House. However, there are very few people on either side of the Chamber who would deny that there is not a long-outstanding and long-ignored necessity for a regulatory framework to give effect to the constitutional right to termination services when there is a risk to the life of the mother.
This is an extremely emotive issue and there are strongly held views on both sides. Like most people in the House, I respect that fact. As far as our responsibility goes, however, this is not a matter of morality, religious opinion, personal belief or party policy. Quite simply, we, as legislators, have an obligation to give legislative or regulatory effect to the will of the people as expressed not in a telephone or opinion poll but rather in successive referenda. The Constitution gives the right to termination services in certain, albeit very limited, circumstances. As Deputy Wallace stated, the failure of the Oireachtas and six successive Governments to put in place the necessary framework during the past 20 years has frustrated that right. It is irrelevant whether said right is widely or rarely demanded. Regardless of whether one woman or 100 women claim the right to which I refer, it does not matter. Once the people have spoken, it is our responsibility to provide the necessary framework.
As far as we know, each day 12 women leave this country to obtain abortions abroad. We have no idea how many more women - it is probably a very large number - obtain medication online and self-medicate in order to terminate. In either circumstance, it is a difficult, lonely decision to take, particularly in the absence of medical, psychological or familial support and without access to medical follow-up. Whatever the overall number, probably only a tiny fraction of the cases to which I refer would meet the constitutional requirement for termination services in Ireland. As everyone is aware, such services can only be accessed here in circumstances where a woman's life is actually at risk. It is beyond my comprehension why there is still an insistence that sick and possibly terminally ill women must undertake arduous, costly and stressful journeys to obtain abroad a service to which they have a constitutional entitlement in this country and in safe and supportive conditions.
The failure to provide clarity has not stopped terminations taking place. It has merely made them less safe and more expensive and stressful. As previous speakers indicated, the European Court of Human Rights found against the Irish State for its failure to give expression to the constitutional entitlement. The Council of Ministers has this matter under enhanced supervision until we comply, and the United Nations Council on Human Rights has condemned us. On several occasions, the Judiciary in this country has called for legislative guidelines of some sort to inform and protect the medical profession as well as the women involved. Regardless of what others say about us, what matters is what the Irish people say. They have said, not once but twice, that the law of the land should allow termination services here. This means that the State must facilitate the entitlement of women in this regard.
After 20 years of inaction, we now have a Government that is willing to deal with the A, B and C case. I welcome what the Minister has said. As stated earlier, the Constitution makes provision for termination services only in specific circumstances. The wording of any regulation or legislation to give effect to this must be equally specific, precise and exact. Every word of any Bill or regulation will be examined, re-examined, picked over and dissected. We had better ensure that what we introduce complies in every respect with the wishes of the people as expressed in the Constitution. For that reason, I agree that we must await the opinion of the expert group. That group has the necessary expertise and has available to it the relevant specialist opinion. It would be a mistake to think that a simple item of legislation or an equally simple regulation is going to suffice in respect of this matter. The relevant Bill or regulation will have to define the circumstances in which there is a threat to a woman's life and the point at which that threat actually becomes a reality.
It would be foolhardy to believe that meeting the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights and ensuring compliance with the narrow and specific wording contained in the Constitution will be simple or straightforward or that what will be produced will escape the scrutiny of the lawyers. The latter will not be the case. Nevertheless, this debate is a valuable first step towards establishing the parameters of the task ahead. We must await the recommendations of the expert group, particularly as we have asked it to consider this matter. It would be wrong to deny ourselves the benefit of the expertise of and the specialist opinion available to that group.