Wednesday, 15 December 2021
Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) (Foetal Pain Relief) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
I am honoured to stand in the Chamber today with the full support of this Bill's ten co-sponsors. I sincerely thank them all for their support of this Bill. We are here to move the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) (Foetal Pain Relief) Bill 2021. It is my understanding that the Government has now submitted an amendment to the Bill, which will deny us the opportunity of it being read again. This is profoundly disappointing, given that it is such a reasonable Bill. I also strongly state that I hope, and it is only reasonable to expect, that the issue of pain relief will be discussed as part of the review into abortion services. It is something that cannot be left out and must form part of that review. I insist on that. I acknowledge the positive cross-party engagement from Deputies and Senators in these Houses. For that reason, and for humane reasons, it is important that pain relief is discussed in the review of abortion services.
The main objective of this Bill is contained in section 3. If accepted, a new provision would be inserted into the 2018 Act requiring pain relief to be administered to an unborn child, where appropriate, in the minority of cases to which that section applies. The section also makes clear that pain relief is not required to be administered in emergency cases where it may not be practicable. I emphasise that we bring this Bill forward in a spirit of constructive engagement. I hope that colleagues will be open to hearing what we have to say and that they will approach this Bill with a view to being guided by the science around foetal pain. More science has come to light in the past few years and, indeed, recent developments have taken place.
In this regard, I will highlight the short report on foetal pain published by the Oireachtas life and dignity group. The report pointed to a major review of the scientific literature on foetal pain that was published in the influential Journal of Medical Ethicsin 2020. In the article, Professor Stuart Derbyshire and Dr. John Bockmann state that research indicates unborn babies might be able to feel "something like pain" as early as 13 weeks. It might be noted that the lead author of the review was Professor Derbyshire, who had previously acted as a consultant to the largest abortion provider in the US, Planned Parenthood. In 2006, he wrote in the British Medical Journalthat not talking to women seeking abortions about pain experienced by unborn babies was "sound policy based on good evidence that fetuses cannot experience pain." However, on foot of his latest review, he states that "it is now clear that the  consensus is no longer [scientifically] tenable." The authors went on to note that:
Given the evidence that the fetus might be able to experience something like pain during later abortions, it seems reasonable that the clinical team and the pregnant woman are encouraged to consider fetal ... [pain relief].
The life and dignity group report also highlighted the fact that foetal surgeons who perform operations on unborn babies look upon them as their patients. As a result, pain relief medication is routinely administered as standard medical practice. Indeed, one leading children's hospital in the United States performed nearly 1,600 foetal surgeries between 1995 and June 2017. Perinatal medicine now treats unborn babies as young as 18 weeks for dozens of conditions where every care is taken not to inflict pain or cause distress to the unborn baby. In 2019, in a reply to a parliamentary question from Sir Edward Leigh MP, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in the UK confirmed that unborn babies receiving recently announced innovative spinal surgery will, as a matter of course, receive pain relief during the procedure.
We are seeking today for the law in this State to reflect a similar precautionary approach, which is reasonable and humane. We already do so in legislation governing animal welfare. In fact, the law demands that this humane approach is reflected in regulatory guidelines dealing with animal welfare. This is only right and proper. For our part, we cannot simply rely on an approach that states it is for medical guidelines alone to deal with such matters. While that position can have some merit, for certain important issues it remains a totally artificial legislative construct that we must overcome. We have all kinds of patient-centred legislation that mandates, where appropriate, how our hospitals and healthcare system should operate. We demand the implementation of certain standards and we make laws to ensure that those standards become a reality. In this light, for us to continue insisting that the Government must have no hand, act or part in shaping a principled approach to medical guidelines is simply not sustainable.
This is particularly true for approaches to dealing with pain relief. Abortions, particularly late-term abortions, are highly emotive issues. We know they are happening already in this State. We know doctors who perform them are highly conflicted and sometimes physically traumatised, as the UCC study made clear. That study was informed by medical professionals.
We must take the lead here. There is a duty and onus on us to do so as legislators who are determined to insert a modicum of compassion into an already sufficiently traumatising experience. We must not abdicate our responsibility as legislators by continuing to insist the issue of pain relief for unborn children is none of our business and will never be our business. How can we maintain that fiction? How long must we wait until our laws in this area are informed by the best available evidence and science? As the Bill's sponsors, we have strong views about that. However, we want to be clear that this Bill will apply in circumstances where the baby has progressed to 20 weeks gestation. In that sense, while the principle of the Bill is critical, it must also be narrow and limited in its terms, approach and application. We hope this warrants widespread cross-party support to enable the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage where the issues can be conscientiously teased out through further analysis. For these reasons and more, I commend this Bill to the House.