Dáil debates

Wednesday, 15 December 2021

Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) (Foetal Pain Relief) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]


10:52 am

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I am glad to contribute on behalf of the Labour Party and to set out why we cannot support this Bill. We will support the Government amendment. There is no care or compassion for women's health conveyed throughout the Bill, nor would it do anything to enhance or improve the health of women or our access to reproductive healthcare. As previous speakers have said, language matters in this debate. It is very important that we all speak on issues relating to women's reproductive health, abortion and crisis pregnancies with compassion, empathy and understanding for the many women in this country who face the awful prospect of a crisis pregnancy and who are faced with considerations and choices to make. We have to be conscious that for far too long in our very recent history, the language of foetal rights and that of the life of the unborn was used to devalue the lives and the health of pregnant women.

It was used in such a way as we saw in 1983 with the eighth amendment to the Constitution and the consequent litigation on that. We saw terrible consequences for the health and lives of pregnant women.

Until the repeal of the eighth amendment in 2018, our fundamental law and Constitution placed undue priority upon the protection of foetal life, placing the right to life of the pregnant woman and the foetus in direct conflict with the appalling consequences that are well known and have been well documented. We might recall the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 and the dreadful case of PP in 2014 in which a pregnant woman was kept alive on life support against her family’s wishes and against the clinical judgment of her medical team because of the eighth amendment. We might recall the women who took their cases to the European Court of Human Rights, known as A, B and C, and the women like Amanda Mellet and Siobhán Whelan who took their cases before the United Nations. We might also remember the many more women, whose stories are untold but all of whom suffered under the eighth amendment and the approximately 160,000 women who were forced to travel abroad, often in dire circumstances, to access terminations of pregnancy, in many cases placing their health at risk.

It was the recognition of that reality and of the real consequence of the eighth amendment, including that undue priority that was placed on foetal life that caused the Irish people to vote by a 66.4% majority in 2018 to delete the text that equated the right to life of the foetus with that of the pregnant woman from the Constitution. We should not forget that the referendum followed extensive debate on measures such as those proposed in this Private Members’ Bill, as well as extensive consultation through the Citizens’ Assembly process and the Oireachtas committee process. We might recall that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution recommended repeal for three key reasons. It did so because of the impact the amendment had on the provision of services for pregnant women; the continuing and ongoing breach of Ireland’s international human rights obligations; and the practical reality of thousands of women being forced to travel every year or to import the abortion pill.

It was those considerations and the compassion and empathy for women in crisis pregnancy that brought about the holding of the referendum in 2018 and that remarkable result in repealing it by such a strong and clear majority. That majority voted in clear knowledge that the legislation which had previously been published would provide for legal abortion in Ireland consequently. This was progress and a huge step forward for the rights of women and girls. None of us in this House really wants to go back to those days pre-2018 when those of us who had daughters – and I have two – would face the prospect of those girls growing up under the chill of the eighth amendment, as so many of us did. I speak as somebody who was taken to court 32 years ago and threatened with prison for giving information to women in crisis pregnancy in my role as president of the Trinity College Students' Union. I will never forget the calls we got in the students union every day and every week in those dark years of 1989 and 1990 from women and girls in crisis pregnancy who were desperate to get the phone number of a clinic in England because they felt they had no choice but to terminate their pregnancies and we failed them in this State for far too long, for the 35 years the eighth amendment was in place. Let us not go back to those dark days. I am proud of the role the Labour Party played during those years; of the role my party played in the repeal campaign; and of my party as a pro-choice party. The activists of Labour Women and of the party were at the forefront of the repeal campaign.

We are supporting the Government amendment and we want to work constructively with the Minister and the Government on the statutory review process that we are glad to see under way. We have been critical of the apparent narrowness of the terms of reference and I note the concerns expressed today by the National Women’s Council of Ireland on the terms of reference. We want to ensure that reforms will be introduced on foot of the experiential survey the Minister is conducting and I am glad to hear that Dr. Catherine Conlon of Trinity College Dublin will be leading the study into women’s experiences. They must be at the heart of the review. I am also glad that we will see the experiences of service providers and of the operation of the Act in the survey.

It is also important that we look at policy recommendations and changes to enhance and strengthen women’s rights of access. In particular we want to see the lifting of the three-day waiting period, which does not have any medical basis and again the National Women’s’ Council of Ireland has made that point today. We want to see the introduction of safe access zones law to protect from intimidation women who seek to access terminations. Again today I see Together for Safety noting that there are still ongoing intimidatory protests around our maternity hospitals. We are concerned that there are women in this country who, because of geographic differences in services cannot access terminations of pregnancies here and who have to travel still. We know that 375 women had to travel to England in 2020, compounding the crisis of the pregnancies they faced in many cases. We want to make sure we can deliver the reproductive health services we so clearly need to women in this country. For far too long those services were denied to us under that chill of the eighth amendment.

Let us not take so long about the review this time either. Let us not take as long as it took us to repeal the eighth amendment. If I had known as a 21-year old activist that it would take over three decades to repeal the eighth amendment and to deliver healthcare to women in this country I do not know what I would have done. It was such a relief to so many of us of my generation to see the eighth amendment finally repealed in 2018. We do not want to go back. We want to ensure we move forward, build on the services that are available and build on the legislative provisions clearly set out in the 2018 Act. We want to ensure our clinical guidelines deliver doctors and medical professionals the guidance they need to ensure the Act is implemented with compassion, empathy and care for women who are pregnant, who are facing crisis pregnancy and who require terminations of pregnancy. That is the clear pathway forward that my party wants to see and I believe the clear majority of people in Ireland want to see that, as represented by that tremendous vote in 2018. Let us not go back and let us ensure that none of our daughters or granddaughters has to live under the chill of the eighth amendment or endure the sort of terrible consequences that so many women endured in this country for far too long.


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