Tuesday, 7 March 2017
Protection of Life During Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall amárach agus i rith na seachtaine seo romhainn.
This is a very simple Bill. It is an amendment to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. I wish to pre-empt everything I am going to say with a bit of an explanation. The worst criticism I have had of this Bill has been from those who say it continues to criminalise women for having an abortion. I will give a little bit of history on it. I have tried twice to amend the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act by removing any reference to the criminalisation of women or medical practitioners who may seek to procure an abortion in this country. On both occasions, parliamentary legal advice - not external legal advice or advice from a solicitor to whom my party and I would go to ask for an opinion - has been that it would be unconstitutional because of the eighth amendment. Here, I rest my case. What we really need and the only thing that will end up dealing with all of the complexities of the criminalisation of women and everything else that stems from it, including the likelihood of women who seek an abortion dying in this country because it is illegal to give them one, is a referendum on the eighth amendment.
As we know, the Citizens' Assembly is progressing ahead. We have debated all the ins and outs of that quite a bit. I am sure it will come into the debate again tonight as I understand there is an amendment from the Government to leave the matter in the hands of the Citizens' Assembly. I did try to change section 22 of the 2013 Act in order for it to state it shall not be an offence for a pregnant woman, her advisor, her doctor or other health worker to terminate a pregnancy as long as this is the course of a woman making that decision and with her valid consent. I was told that was out of order and that I would have to try something else.
The Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit and I are moving a simple Bill, which we would rather not be doing. I am going to explain in the few minutes that I have why we are doing it. It is to amend section 22 of the 2013 Act to state that a person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable to a fine of not more than €1. That sounds like I am being facetious or trivialising it. I am not. Au contraire. I am trying to deal with abortion and the stigma that lies around it in this country.
It has been a strange day insofar as there has been a convergence and a link made between the Grace case, which we just discussed, the Tuam babies, this Bill, and indeed, to some extent, the struggle for a mother, Ms Vera Twomey, to get health services for her child. It has been a day full of the discussion about the rights of women in this country and their control over their own lives. I believe the link between all of these is that for too long we have had a kind of coherent enterprise between the State and the church to dominate and control women's lives. The control of our reproductive lives is unbelievably out of order in the 21st century. In particular, that control has manifested itself as a war on the poor and on working-class women in the recent past and to this day. The last respectable form of that oppression in this country is the eighth amendment and the denial of women in this country of the control of their own fertility and decision-making over their own lives.
We are trying to begin the process of decriminalising women's choices. The Bill is simple and it is not complicated. It is not trying to say abortion must remain criminal but only arguing for a small sentence. The reason for the Bill is that, in the very recent past and not very far away from us - probably 60 to 65 miles or 80 km to 90 km away - three women were arrested and charged before the courts in Northern Ireland for procuring the abortion pill. Somebody might say that this Bill does not deal with backstreet abortions. The form of backstreet abortions, if it can be called such in this country, is the abortion pill, which is safe as declared by the World Health Organization and is increasingly being sought by young women as a form of control of their fertility and to deal with crisis pregnancies. In the North, three women - a mother of an under-age child and two women who self-aborted using the pill - have been before the courts. In the North, they could face a life sentence. That is not much different to a 14-year sentence, which is what they could face in this state. That is what the Act of 2013 states. Section 22 states:
(1) It shall be an offence to intentionally destroy unborn human life.
(2) A person who is guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on indictment to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years, or both.
(3) A prosecution for an offence under this section may be brought only by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
In a very twisted and silly way, the Taoiseach in a response to my question during Leaders' Questions about the Tuam babies said that he could not support our Bill because "if, for instance, somebody kicks his pregnant partner and kills the baby she is carrying, he is to be guilty of a fine." Coming from the leader of a country, it is really disgraceful and silly in a way to equate the attempt in this Bill with an attempt to decriminalise grievous bodily harm and assault. That is not what I am saying. What we want to do is decriminalise abortion for women, not to decriminalise grievous bodily harm or assault on women. That is what that amounts to.
It is alarming that in a court recently, a man who beat up his partner very badly in front of her children was referred on for the possibility of doing community service. That has nothing to do with the legislation that I am trying to alter tonight. The process of decriminalising women has to begin before we wait forever for the Citizens' Assembly to make its adjudication, for the outcome of that and then, if and when, for the possibility of a referendum on the eighth amendment. It has to begin. Every day in this country, at least three young women access the abortion pill and therefore at least three young women are faced with a potential 14-year sentence hanging over them. This country is changing. The message has to be sent out through measures like this that we are turning our backs on the days of the killing fields of Tuam, on the Magdalen laundries and on the days when the church in this country dominated our lives by being obsessed with our pregnant bodies. We cannot allow a sentence of 14 years to remain, while everybody else navel gazes and looks at how we are going to deal with it.
To those Deputies who have indicated to me already that they are either going to abstain or vote against the Bill but particularly to those abstaining, the Minister, Deputy Katherine Zappone, and the Independents in government, I ask them to think. What amendment would they table to this Bill that would satisfy their idea of how women who procure an abortion in the State or who take the abortion pill should be responded to? Should we give them ten years instead of 14? Should the fine be €10 or €100? I ask them to tell me and amend accordingly. Let us see then what we can come out with.
If the Government does not agree with the criminalisation of women, it should support this Bill. Those who tell me they are abstaining because of legal opinion, such as those in Sinn Féin, should note there are all sorts of legal opinions one can get. I could go down the road and pay a solicitor for another set of legal opinions. The Deputies are really saying they are going to leave women, particularly young women, susceptible to a hefty sentence while we wait for a reversal of the other processes instigated in this House to stall the process of decriminalising abortion, decriminalising women and making our choices freely, legally and safely in this country.
This is not an academic argument because what I describe is happening in Northern Ireland. It is not a question of waiting because the legal opinion suggests this, that and the other; this is reality. I make a special appeal to those who believe it is acceptable to abstain or that we can wait until the Citizens' Assembly has completed its deliberations. If one has been campaigning with us, standing on the street with one's "Repeal" T-shirt and badges and marching and really believes in what one is saying when one protests against the draconian use of legislation against women in this country, one should think twice, vote with one's conscience and not be bound by party restrictions on one's beliefs. If one believes this Bill is not good enough, one should propose amendments. One should not, however, support an amendment that kicks for touch, implying that it is acceptable to continually leave women and their medical advisers with the stigma, threat and chill factor of a 14-year sentence hanging over their lives.
I am very happy to support this Bill. In March 2016, only a year ago, Mr. Donald Trump, on his campaign trail, made the statement that women should suffer some form of punishment for having an abortion. That statement led to an absolute outcry in the United States. Among all the outrageous statements Mr. Donald Trump made, this was the least acceptable to the general population. Mr. Trump had to back-pedal, yet in Ireland there is a 14-year jail sentence for any woman, friend, counsellor or other individual who helps a woman with a crisis pregnancy to have an abortion. That law was enacted only in 2013, which is absolutely unbelievable. It is not a relic. It is not from the Victoria area. It is not the Offences against the Person Act 1861. It was a response to the really minimal X case legislation brought in following the death of Ms Savita Halappanavar. The legislation had to be accompanied by the legislation of 2013 because of the conservatism of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and, unfortunately, even people in the Labour Party.
As Deputy Bríd Smith just said, when the Taoiseach is asked whether he supports or will continue to support this kind of punishment of women, he answers with something completely different. Today, when asked about this matter by Deputy Bríd Smith, he said that if we changed this law, the Deputy would be saying that if somebody, "kicks his pregnant partner and kills the baby she is carrying, he is [only] to be guilty of a fine." If somebody kicks his pregnant partner, he is guilty of assault; he is not subject to a fine. The Taoiseach does not seem to know the difference between an abortion, assault and miscarriage. It is quite incredible. It is a pathetic response to a really serious issue.
What is the effect of this law and of the ban on abortion in Ireland generally? It does not lessen the rate of abortion. Legally or illegally, women will find ways to have abortions. Therefore, what is the purpose? It has a chilling effect on general practitioners, who cannot even talk to pregnant women in distress. They cannot even talk openly to them about where they can have an abortion, should that be their choice. Even women with fatal foetal abnormalities have reported or testified to the Deputies opposite that they cannot even be assisted by their doctors. That is the effect of this law.
The other effect is evident from the case of the woman who was clinically dead and pregnant but who less than two years ago was kept as if in an incubator by doctors because of the chilling effect of the eighth amendment and particularly the chilling effect of the threat of 14 years in jail if they were not seen to be carrying through with the eighth amendment. It was not just the eighth amendment in itself. We also saw the same chilling effect in regard to the care of Savita Halappanavar.
Women are punished. It is bad enough that women are forced to leave the country at their own expense and in secrecy because of the eighth amendment but the imposition of a criminal record also occurs. This is happening 100 miles up the road in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the idea that it could not happen here at some point is completely wrong. Why have a law if it is not going to be invoked?
Are Deputies seriously saying they believe a woman who has an abortion in this country should be treated worse than a rapist or somebody who carries out a violent crime? If anyone seriously believes that, there is something mentally wrong with him or her. There is no way that is the case. A woman who simply cannot continue with a pregnancy, which could be for any of a variety of reasons, is not a criminal. Therefore, why have this law?
Who are the women? They are sisters of Deputies and they are neighbours, workmates and relatives. They are not aliens from outer space; they are women one meets every single day in one's life.
I have just come from taking part in an event with the ROSA Bus4Repeal. It was part of the global and national actions that are taking place in defiance of the eighth amendment and with the aim of offering assistance to women and giving them access to safe medical abortion pills. I refer to abortion pills such as the ones I have to hand. It is a packet of pills for the Dutch and Belgian market. They are available to women in every other country in the European Union but there is a jail sentence if used in Ireland. We are told by Deputies how unsafe they are. Tell that to women in Norway or the 80% of women in Finland who have abortions. There is nothing unsafe about them and they should not be sensationalised.
Women who use and gain access to the pills have very positive experiences. A survey was carried out by Women on Web on women who access their service. Three women per day have abortions in their own bedrooms in Ireland. Are we seriously saying we are going to send around the police to investigate and arrest them and carry out the punishment in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act? Some 70% of the women in question felt relieved and most felt very happy with the decision they made.
We are on the eve of an extremely important day. International Women's Day is very historically significant. It commemorates when women workers, in particular, fought for the right to join trade unions and for workers' rights. Tomorrow there will be global actions on International Women's Day on the issue of woman's rights, particularly to draw attention to violence against women. Throughout Central America and Latin America, millions of women have protested. Of course, this is not reported much in RTE and other Irish media. Millions of women have marched against femicide. Throughout the United States, following the election of Mr. Donald Trump, 3 million women took to the streets in the march on Washington. There were also protests in Poland and every other country where women's rights are being eroded and endangered. Tomorrow in Ireland, the focus will be on the repeal of the eighth amendment. At 12.30 p.m., Strike4Repeal is asking women to assemble on O'Connell Bridge wearing black. It is asking that they take time off work or go on strike, which I fully support and endorse. At 5.30 p.m., there will be a march for repeal leaving the Garden of Remembrance and going to the Dáil, where Deputies will yet again be put under pressure over the outrageous eighth amendment.
Why are these things happening? It is because a new generation will not wait. It will not accept that it should just wait dutifully for the likes of the Citizens' Assembly and this Dáil, which is completely unrepresentative of Irish society. It does not reflect the huge societal change and attitudes that have taken place on abortion and many other issues, including that of medical cannabis. The two big parties, particularly Fine Gael because it is in government and has power, are so conservative that they do not believe children should have access to medical cannabis. The new generation of young men and women will not wait. They look at the revelations coming from Tuam, from the so-called mother and baby home. It was not a home but an absolute institution and prison - a concentration camp, in fact, for the young, poor and pregnant women who were put into it and whose offspring mattered nothing to the nuns and the church taking care of them, so much so that the children's bodies were unceremoniously dumped, right up to the age of three. Why did those children die? They had no contact with their own mothers. That, in itself, put their health in serious danger in terms of feeding the other emotional supports.
Does the Minister seriously think that the church that put the eighth amendment in place - let us not kid ourselves that it was any other church as it was a who's who of Catholic groups that argued for the eighth amendment in 1983 - has any moral high ground to lecture women or young people in this country on how they should lead their lives after what we heard at the weekend? It absolutely has not, so forget it. The first thing a bishop was asked at the Citizens' Assembly by one person was whether he really thought he had the right to tell people what to do after what has happened in his institutions. It is hypocrisy. There must be a separation of church and State now.
However, the key reason is the delay. The Citizens' Assembly was put in place last October. It was five years last October since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar and we still have not had a referendum. The Citizens' Assembly has not even got around to discussing women's health as a basis or ground for abortion. When will it get around to it? It will not. It does not consider it important. It is quite unbelievable that what led to the death of Savita and the resurgent repeal movement has not even been discussed. The debate is being directed into very narrow channels. The opinion poll that appeared in The Irish Timesover the weekend suddenly inserted the idea of replacement of the eighth amendment, rather than its repeal. It is a concept that did not even exist six months ago and is clearly politically motivated to soften people up for far less than repeal. The pro-choice movement will say with one voice, "No, we will not accept anything less than repeal." We reject the tone policing that is taking place, telling us that we are too shrill and loud and that we should accept something less than what is necessary. That was said to the women on the contraception train in 1971 also. They were told they were asking for too much. We deserve nothing less than repeal and that is what we will fight for.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:Dáil Éireann declines to give the Protection of Life During Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill 2017 a second reading in order that the Citizens’ Assembly, established by resolutions of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, can conclude its deliberations on the eighth amendment to the Constitution of Ireland prior to further consideration of potential legislative change including to the existing penalties set out in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, and report to the Oireachtas, or to an Oireachtas Committee, in the first half of 2017.
The Private Members Bill before us seeks to amend section 22(2) of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. The title of section 22 of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act is, "Destruction of unborn human life". Section 22(1) specifies that it is an offence to intentionally destroy human life. Subsection (2) clarifies that the penalty for a person who is guilty of the offence of destruction of human life is a fine or up to 14 years imprisonment or both. Subsection (3) states that prosecution for the offence may be brought only by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The effect of the amendment Bill introduced by the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit and the Green Party is to delete subsection (2) and substitute it with the following subsection: "a person who is guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable to a fine of not more than €1.00". As a consequence the penalty for the offence of the intentional destruction of unborn human life would be reduced to €1.
Before I set out the reasons for not accepting the Bill and putting forward a reasoned amendment, I will remind the House of the current constitutional and statute law on abortion. The main purpose of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 is to restate the general prohibition on abortion in Ireland while regulating access to lawful termination of pregnancy in accordance with the X case and the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the A, B and C v. Ireland case. Its purpose is to confer procedural rights on a woman who believes she has a life-threatening condition in order that she can have certainty as to whether she requires this treatment. The Act sets out exemptions to the offence, in cases where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the pregnant woman which may only be averted by termination of pregnancy.
The principal constitutional issue dealt with in the Act is the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the right to life of the mother, as set out in Article 40.3.3oof the Constitution. Article 40.3.3oor the eighth amendment to the Constitution states: "The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its law to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right". The effect of this Article is that a high level of protection is afforded by the Constitution to the right to life of the unborn and, subsequently, the power of the Oireachtas to legislate to allow for abortion is restricted. Subject to the exemption where the life of a pregnant woman is at risk, abortion is prohibited in Ireland. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act does not, and cannot, confer new rights to termination of pregnancy, but clarifies existing rights. A referendum would be required to broaden the scope of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.
As I have previously said, section 22 of the Act provides for the offence of the intentional destruction of unborn human life. The section replaces sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which are repealed under section 5 of the Act. Under the 1861 Act, a woman could be prosecuted for an unlawful abortion, the penalty for which was "to be kept in penal servitude for life". Under the 2013 Act the penalty for the offence is up to 14 years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both. A prosecution may be brought only by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. This is to ensure that frivolous or mischievous cases cannot be brought before the courts. While Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution prohibits abortion, with certain exemptions, this prohibition would be ineffective without the provision of a criminal prevention of the offence in question. Due to the gravity of the crime, the intentional destruction of unborn human life, and the constitutional protection for the unborn, a maximum of 14 years in prison is considered an appropriate penalty.
The period of 14 years was agreed at the time of drafting the 2013 Act following discussions with the Department of Justice and Equality and the Office of the Attorney General to ensure alignment with the criminal code for crimes of similar magnitude. Other offences subject to a maximum of 14 years include the offence of assisting the commission of a suicide, under the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1993, and assaults causing serious harm, under section 4 of the Non-fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997.
The penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment may apply to any person, including the pregnant woman. While it is recognised that the potential criminalisation of a pregnant woman is a very difficult and sensitive matter, this provision reflects the State’s constitutional obligation arising from Article 40.3.3o.
It would also be inequitable to have, as a matter of course, a significant penalty for the person performing a termination but none at all for the woman undergoing the procedure. The sentence to be applied in any particular case is a matter for the court.
Reference was made by Deputy Bríd Smith, in her contribution introducing this Bill in the House last Thursday, to the prosecutions in Northern Ireland of women for the procurement, supply or administration of abortion pills. The law in Northern Ireland is different from that of Great Britain. In the North, the law relating to the termination of pregnancy is contained in sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and in section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945. This means it is lawful to perform a termination of pregnancy only if it is necessary to preserve the life of the woman or there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent. In this jurisdiction it is also illegal to procure an abortion, whether by surgical, medication or other means outside of the circumstances specified in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.
While I understand the sentiment behind this Private Members Bill in terms of overall policy in this area, including further constitutional and-or legislative change, the Bill is premature. The Government gave a clear commitment on how it intended to examine the complex and important issue of the eighth amendment. Since our last debate on this issue in October 2016 that commitment has been well advanced. The Citizens’ Assembly established by the Government last year is actively engaged with the topic of the eighth amendment to the Constitution. Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, a justice of the Supreme Court, chairs the assembly comprised of 99 citizens randomly chosen from the population. The assembly is currently discussing the eighth amendment over a period of five weekends and only last weekend held its fourth meeting on the issue. A report with its recommendations on the matter is expected to be presented to the Oireachtas in June.
The Government has agreed to immediately refer the assembly’s report to a special Oireachtas committee which will be asked to respond to the deliberations and recommendations of the assembly by the end of the year. The special committee will bring the outcome of this process to the Dáil for further debate and decision.
I understand the inclusion of the Article 40.3.3oin the Constitution has caused much hardship and uncertainty for women-----
-----but we do have a process in place to review this provision. I ask that we give the Citizens' Assembly the time it needs to consider the issue and report back to the Oireachtas. It is on that basis that the Government moves its reasoned amendment in order that the Citizens' Assembly, established by resolutions of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, can conclude its deliberations on the eighth amendment prior to further consideration of potential legislative change, including to the existing penalties set out in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, and report to the Oireachtas or an Oireachtas committee in the first half of 2017.
This issue was always going to be raised again in the context of the Bill previously debated in the Dáil which subsequently became the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. It was raised quite a lot during the debate on that legislation. The main focus of debate at the time was on addressing the issue of protecting the life of the mother in the context of what had happened and against the backdrop of the eighth amendment and Article 40.3.3o of the Constitution. There is no doubt, however, that there was a lot of disquiet at the time about the statutory provision for a 14 year prison term for a girl or a woman who procured an abortion, used abortion pills or otherwise terminated a pregnancy in the State. Let us think of a young girl, sitting at the end of her bed with a positive pregnancy test result, alone, vulnerable and unsure of what to do. Let us say she did actually procure abortion pills on the Internet. There have been several seizures of abortion pills being brought into the State from other countries, particularly the Netherlands. Would any of us in this House be comfortable with that girl being prosecuted in court, convicted and potentially sentenced to 14 years in prison for procuring abortion pills because of a crisis pregnancy? That is, effectively, what is in the Statute Book. I can understand the constitutional requirement to have that provision in the Statute Book. We debated this issue at length in 2013 and have debated it subsequently, but that is the fact of the matter, as things stand. If we are comfortable with that, fine, but if we are uncomfortable with it, the issue will have to be addressed. We simply cannot have a situation where there is a potential criminal conviction and a 14 year jail term for a young girl who procures abortion pills in the first trimester of a pregnancy. If the State is to be true to itself, it must either enforce the law or repeal it. In that context, repeal would be the obvious issue to address. That said, I accept the constraints. Bills similar to the one before us have consistently been brought before the Dáil in one guise or another, but we are in the middle of a process. We can debate the issue and march on the streets, but, ultimately, it is the people - possibly Parliament and then the people - who will decide, depending on what the Citizens' Assembly recommends.
We have to be honest with ourselves about the legislation and the stringent criminal terms laid out therein. Equally, we must be honest that there is little we can do until such time as we look at Article 40.3.3o and wait for the Citizens' Assembly to report. It will then be a matter for the Houses of the Oireachtas. There may be an election in the interim. Ultimately, the Dáil and the Seanad will decide on a path forward on foot of the recommendations or observations of the Citizens' Assembly. I did not support the establishment of the Citizens' Assembly at the time because I felt it would be unwieldy. We should have considered having a judge-led commission to take a quick, concise look at the issue, as happened in the the case of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, which formulated the debate for the then Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. That said, Judge Mary Laffoy is chairing the Citizens' Assembly and will, I hope, be seen to be impartial. The assembly is going about its work. Some are saying it is too slow, while others are saying the assembly is not delving into enough detail. We must give it time to come to its conclusions. The views of 100 of our peers will ultimately be placed before the Dáil and the Seanad and we will decide whether to retain, amend or repeal the eighth amendment. Depending on what the Citizens' Assembly recommends, Parliament will make its decision. Ultimately, we may see the exercise of the greatest example of people power in a referendum.
There is a view in middle Ireland on this issue. While there are some who are strongly on one or other side of the argument, there are people in middle Ireland who want to see some of these issues addressed but who do not want it to be done in a divisive way. Some Deputies are trying to stimulate debate, knowing full well that the constitutional requirements mean that the provisions of the Bill before us would fall at the first hurdle in a constitutional test.
Gabh mo leithscéal. As Deputy Bríd Smith said, one can get various political opinions, but one can also get various legal opinions. I am simply making an observation, as I see it. We will be discussing the findings of the Citizens' Assembly, either at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health or in formal plenary session of the Dáil, very soon. The assembly is to report in the first half of 2017. There are lots of issues relevant, including Article 40.3.3o, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act and the criminal sanctions included in that Act. We must consider the difficulties faced by young vulnerable girls who have nowhere to go, who are full of fear and panic and who go onto the Internet. We must think of the criminal sanctions that hang over them or their friends who may assist them. We must think of this when we are debating the issue in the future. I hope the debate on the Bill will keep that issue to the fore. At the same time, we must be honest with ourselves. We cannot amend the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act while the Citizens' Assembly is in session, deliberating and coming to a definitive decision on the recommendations that will ultimately be debated in this House. It is unfortunate that this issue is again being used in a divisive way when a lot of people would like to see us deal with it in a very compassionate, humane manner.
Mar dhuine a labhraíonn Gaeilge beagnach chuile uair a sheasaim sa Teach seo, beidh mé ag labhairt cuid mhaith i mBéarla anocht. Tá mé cinnte go maithfear dom é mar is dóigh go bhfuil mé thar a bheith dílis ó thaobh úsáid na Gaeilge sa Teach seo.
I have listened with interest to the debate from the beginning. I always try to respect everybody's view. I try to not to impugn people's motives, but that does not always seem to be reciprocated. The fundamental basis of the differing views on abortion hinges on one question: do you believe an unborn baby is a human or do you not?
Does one believe it is an independent human, even though it is in the mother's womb but independent in its life or does one believe it is the sole property of the mother?
I think she would have not accepted that she was not a mother from the time that she started carrying a baby.
There is a great slagging match going on that those of us who believe in the protection of human life do so at the behest of the Catholic Church. Do I believe in the protection of born human life because of the Catholic Church? The rest of the Deputies here, who I know would share my belief in the absolute protection of human life after birth, would absolutely dismiss the idea that they believe in it because of the tenets of the Catholic Church. I would share their belief that capital punishment is an obscenity that has no place in the modern world. I believe that because I believe nobody should take a human life. Therefore, it is a much more fundamental belief than a belief that a church might have. To believe that human life in all of its stages of life should be protected is a fundamental right of the human.
Obviously, in the case of somebody who is expecting a baby, that creates a huge issue in that one is trying to protect rights, the rights of the unborn child and the rights of the mother. I know of nobody who says if the woman's life is in danger and if the child has to be taken and if the child cannot survive outside the womb, that should not happen. That has been happening in medicine for years.
Many eminent gynaecologists would say that what happened in the Savita Halappanavar case was a total lack of care, which seems to be a major challenge in hospitals because we have had a very high number of maternal mortalities in hospitals in recent years. University Hospital Galway, which had gone for years without any maternal death, had one in recent times that according to many experts was totally avoidable and had nothing to do with the protection of human life under the Constitution.
I share Deputy Billy Kelleher's concern over the Citizens' Assembly because like the Deputies who introduced this Bill, I believe ultimately that we are the citizens' assembly. The whole idea of setting up Dáil Éireann in 1918 was to set up an assembly of the people elected only by the people. To have a parallel assembly elected by some lottery system seems to run counter to the very deep roots of democracy within the State. However, the Citizens' Assembly is there now. A process has been put in train and let us move forward with that process.
Another thing I would share with the people who introduced the Bill is my view that many criminal sanctions are far too high. It is well known that I am not great at the business of the condemnation of people right across society. Many have been involved in what society considers criminal activities, but often there are extenuating circumstances to it. It is well known that I would generally be against those people in society who favour throwing away the key when people go to prison and look for even longer sentences.
I remember being very concerned about the particular provision that had been raised here when this was debated on Committee Stage in the Oireachtas because I thought the sanction was incredibly long, particularly when compared with other sanctions. However, to say the only way that somebody might commit an offence under this law is by taking the abortion pill does not in any way recognise that abortion can come at many stages and in many circumstances. If it is against the law and banned under the Constitution, there must be some penalty. I was very concerned at the time that the penalty for the mother and the penalty for the person who would actually do the abortion is the same in the Act for all of the reasons that those who know me well would understand - my natural sympathy for a mother in a case of a crisis and what might happen. This particular issue needs to be debated in much more detail.
What we have is not an effort to deal with a criminal sanction that could be far too high irrespective of the circumstances, but a part of a very open campaign. I admire those who have the view even though I diametrically disagree with them, but it is part of a campaign to allow abortion on demand in this country. It would appear that this is still a minority view, but let the people decide that question.
There are those of us who take a contrary view and do not believe that abortion is a personal issue for one person, but believe there is a second person involved. Will they not respect us for having a belief? Will they not at least do us the courtesy of trying to see where we are coming from? I always try to see where the other side is coming from. I recognise that if they do not believe an unborn baby - a baby at 24, 25 or 26 weeks - is a human person, why not have abortion? That is a valid view. However, believing the opposite is an equally valid view and is the one I happen to hold not because any church tells me, but because my reason tells me that it is a person, a human, and therefore entitled to human protection.
That is why I believe in this. It is important that, regardless of what happens in this debate, we should respect each other. We will probably never agree, but we should respect the sincerity of people's views. People should stop trying to impugn other people's integrity just because they disagree with them. They should believe that there is a sincerity in those who are very understanding who would be very tolerant, but who just cannot get away from the firm belief that what we are talking about here are little humans.
Quite rightly there is absolute condemnation of what happened in Tuam and I share that condemnation because we are talking about babies, born and unborn, that were dealt with in a way that is totally wrong. If there is one lesson from that, it is that we must care for children.
Some people define a child the second after birth. Some define it after 30 weeks in the womb, while others after 20 weeks. These are all different views, but everyone is entitled to his or her beliefs. While I accept children are not independent because they need parents or somebody else to look after them, what I find distasteful is people not accepting the motivation of those of us who believe a child is a human being and separate person. Can people not at least accept that because they are a separate human being, that is our motivation? Anyone who has ever come to me over my long career in politics, or before, no matter what dilemma he or she was in or where he or she was, including prison, found nothing ever from me except understanding and compassion as well as an unwillingness to judge or condemn anyone. It is not my business to judge or condemn anybody, irrespective of what he or she ever did.
I thank the AAA-PBP, in particular, Deputy Bríd Smith, for using their Private Members' time to debate this important issue. It is particularly welcome we are discussing this issue on the eve of International Women's Day.
Sinn Féin is opposed to the criminalisation of women for terminating pregnancies. This was reflected in the contribution we made during the debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in 2013. At the time, we tabled several amendments which would have excluded the pregnant woman herself from criminal sanction. While the Bill we are debating tonight is well-intentioned, the simple and undeniable fact is that it does not address the issue of the criminalisation of women. This issue cannot be meaningfully addressed until the eighth amendment to the Constitution is repealed.
We in Sinn Féin do not dispute in any way that the Deputies tabling this Bill are well intentioned. However, the Bill, as drafted, could lead to unforeseen consequences such as reducing the penalty for those who intentionally commit harmful actions against a pregnant woman. We acknowledge this is not the primary intention of the Bill. However, as drafted, it is a real possibility and one which means we cannot support it. We cannot ignore the fact that this Bill will not address the key issue facing women today. This House cannot, despite its best intentions, give women the help and support they need until the eighth amendment is repealed.
Instead, we have the Government refusing to deal with the issue which is impeding the delivery of rights for women. We have the Citizens' Assembly which is supposed to comprise a cross-section of our community. Why are we asking 99 people in staged debates in Malahide rather than asking everyone? We should have a vote for all. It is past time for the referendum. The people want this referendum. We are fooling nobody if we think we can tinker around the edges of this issue without repeal.
The eighth amendment stands between this House and our ability to stop the criminalising of women for accessing abortion services. The eighth amendment is an impediment to dealing effectively with crisis pregnancies. Without a repeal of the eighth amendment, we are letting women down. We criminalise their actions without giving them a choice. While I welcome this debate, we cannot ignore the fact this legislation seeks to reduce the penalty. However, only after repeal can we effectively deal with the issue of criminalisation. It is time to repeal the eighth amendment because we cannot have a grown-up conversation as a people about the criminalisation of our women until that happens. Whether the fine is one cent, €1 or €1 million, the issue of the criminalisation of women, which Sinn Féin has spoken out against inside and outside this Chamber, cannot be dealt with until we repeal the eighth amendment.
We fully respect the intention of the Deputies who tabled this Bill but Sinn Féin cannot support it as drafted. We do not wish, however, to oppose it because we know it is motivated by compassion. We will have to abstain on the Bill, but we will work with all those Deputies from all parties and none who want to see the eighth amendment repealed.
On the eve of International Women's Day, we reflect on cases like that of Ann Lovett, as well as the women and their babies condemned to the horror of mother and baby homes. As a people, we have not covered ourselves in glory where women are concerned. While we continue to do women a disservice, wait for the Citizens' Assembly to report and wait for the Government to legislate for the repeal of the eighth amendment, we also continue to criminalise our sisters, friends and daughters. These women deserve better. They do not deserve criminalisation. Whether the fine is one cent or €1, we cannot ignore the fact there is an amendment to the Constitution which impedes those of us who want to do the right thing for women.
We must stop repeating the mistakes of the past and get on with the business of compassion and understanding for our women and girls. Let us repeal the eighth amendment and ensure pregnant women are excluded from any indictment and all penalties. We cannot do this until we repeal the eighth amendment and come together as a parliament to debate and legislate for women.
The Labour Party supports this Bill as we have consistently sought to ensure the repeal of the eighth amendment. The Labour Party has a proud history in supporting a woman's right to choose. Colleagues of mine such as Deputies Jan O'Sullivan and Howlin, with others in the party, campaigned against the eighth amendment as far back as 1983. That opposition then was based on the principle that it was wrong to use the Constitution as a mechanism to deal with the sensitive issue of terminations. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. It is worth remembering that my party has always been the key catalyst for much social change. Under Labour Party Governments, we decriminalised homosexuality, held a successful referendum to legalise divorce, legalised contraception, called a referendum to enshrine marriage equality and legislated for the X case, after the successive failures of previous Governments to do so.
The eighth amendment should never ever have been inserted into the Constitution. It was stupid. Bunreacht na hÉireann is not the arena in which deeply personal decisions regarding the health of a woman should be adjudicated. We remain one of the only countries in western Europe to place such a heavy restriction on access to safe, legal and appropriate abortion services. Abortion is a matter for a woman and her doctor, supported by her family. It is important to say on this day of all days that it is not for the State, for the church or for anyone else to interfere in matters to do with the bodily autonomy of women.
There can be no illusions about it. Twelve women leave our shores every day to access termination services. According to the Irish Family Planning Association, between January 1980 and December 2015, 166,951 women travelled overseas to access a procedure not available in their own country. In 2015 alone, 3,451 women gave Irish addresses while accessing services in the United Kingdom. While the United Kingdom is the primary country where Irish women receive terminations, there are other countries to which they, unfortunately, have to go, including the Netherlands.
For those with the financial resources, it is an arduous journey but for many more, with less financial means, it is a journey they cannot afford to take. That is wrong. It is also wrong that no woman of child-bearing age has had a chance to ever vote on these laws. It is shameful that nobody in the State under the age of 51 years has had his or her say on the archaic eighth amendment.
If a woman or girl is raped and a subject of incest and becomes pregnant as a result, our laws force her to carry the pregnancy to term. If a crisis pregnancy causes a woman excess acute medical illness, in many cases she has been forced to live with it.
Access to terminations can also be a class issue. According to the Irish Family Planning Association, IFPA:
Travelling to the UK for a ... [termination] below 14 weeks gestation costs at least €1,000. This includes clinic fees of €500-€600, flights and accommodation. This does not include indirect costs such as child care and loss of income.
[So termination] ... in cases foetal abnormality costs more due to the duration of the treatment, which can ... [go on for another] 4-5 days [up to a week].
It is disappointing, despite all the progress we have made as a nation, that we continue to export the issue of abortion in what is a total abdication of duty towards our fellow citizens.
Given the day that is in it and it has been an emotional day and an emotional week for our country, it is incredible that successive Governments, comprising Members from all sides of the House, can stand by in the light of what is a fundamental human rights issue. As Members of this House will be only too aware, Ireland is in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is intolerable and we need urgent action.
Who is thinking of Amanda Mellet tonight and the apology which this State had to give to her? I know the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, met her because I, with Deputy Billy Kelleher, wrote to him last November asking him to met her and to at least give her some hope and support in regard to two of the three issues that the United Nations has declared Ireland to be in breach of, particularly in the area of rehabilitation and compensation.
The Labour Party made a clear commitment during the last general election to hold a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. I commend the work of my colleagues and the Labour Party women in this regard. It is not sufficient to simply repeal the amendment and not replace it, hence the Labour Party has always proposed legislation, and has done so in the recent past, to deal with it.
The Government, however, also needs to consider the views of others, those of clinicians. Many commentators have highlighted the legal difficulties faced by doctors under the current system. The existing legislation is not robust enough to allow for doctors to make decisions in consultation with women and in their best interests. We in the Labour Party are not interested in fudging the issue by diverting it off to the Citizens' Assembly which is devoid of the people who are representing them in the one true Assembly which is here in Dáil Éireann. The Dál is our citizens' assembly and it has been said time and again in this House that we must call a referendum and allow the people their say on this outdated amendment.
I agree with the spirit of this Bill and we, in the Labour Party, will be voting for it. The idea that a young girl who accesses abortion pills or anything else can be incarcerated for 14 years is immoral, wrong and unconscionable. We need to work more closely with a coalition of people campaigning for a repeal of the eighth amendment to make some serious progress. The law must be changed. However, we need a sweeping reform of access to termination services.
Public opinion has clearly changed. A Red C poll commissioned by Amnesty International found that 87% of respondents want access to termination services widened. In October 2016, a poll in TheIrish Timespoll found that nearly 75% of respondents support repeal of the eighth amendment. The only realistic solution is to call an immediate referendum and repeal the outdated eighth amendment and legislate in this House.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was something that we fought for in the previous Dail. The second annual report on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act has been released. We now have two reports, one for 2014 and one for 2015. In total they tell us that 52 lives have been saved as a result of that legislation. The people in this House and outside it might reflect on the change that has brought about and the continuing change we all need to bring about for the women of this country.
People are clear on my position on the repeal of the eighth amendment. Ireland's historical treatment of women and children is not something of which we can be proud. This was sadly reaffirmed with the news about the findings at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home on Friday. The legacy of the shameful way in which women were treated in the past is evident in the Constitution to this day, and the eighth amendment infringes upon the autonomy of women and impedes on our access to essential reproductive health care services.
As has been said, 12 women a day leave these shores to travel to Britain for an abortion. I read a quote that stated that in the 100 days the Citizens' Assembly has been sitting approximately 1,000 women have left these shores to go to Britain for an abortion, with hundreds more taking the abortion pill.
For too long we have exported our abortion dilemma to other shores and we cannot continue to do this. For those who are not in a position to travel, the eighth amendment is a source of discrimination and inequality. The abortion ban hits marginalised and vulnerable women the hardest. These include women on low incomes, for whom the cost of travelling for an abortion can mean up to 15% to 20% of their income. We know those who are disproportionately affected include asylum seekers and undocumented women, children and adolescents, women living with a disability or illness, victims of domestic violence and women who have received a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. We also know that in recent polls there is a strong public desire to have a clear regulatory framework in place that allows access to abortion.
People are no longer willing to see people's lives placed at risk. They are no longer willing to see the chilling effect of section 22 of the legislation which provides that anybody who procures or carries out an abortion will be jailed for up to 14 years.
Deputies Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and I, former Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan and other Members attempted to introduce legislation in this area twice in the previous Dáil. That played an important role in raising this issue and generating debate on it in the Dáil and among those in the community. When we introduced our first Bill in this area, we got legal advice on it, and it was very strong legal advice, but while it was defeated, it was supported by Action on X and all the other organisations, which have supported the progressive legislation we attempted to introduce. The issue was clearly placed on the agenda and could no longer be ignored by the political elite in the country and that Bill played an important role in the movement that has developed around support for the repeal of the eighth amendment.
I opposed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill particularly because of the Tuam effect of the legislation with regard to the imposition of a prison sentence of up to 14 years. It is horrendous that a young girl who is very frightened would have that threat hanging over her head. It is disgraceful that we as a Dáil continue to allow that situation to continue.
I understand where Deputy Bríd Smith is coming from in introducing this Bill. It seeks to reduce the penalty from a chilling 14 years imprisonment to €1, but, as was mentioned, it does not decriminalise the act of having an abortion in terms of the role of the GP, or that of the women or the girls. Health professionals would still be charged with a criminal offence. They would be struck of the register if they assisted in this. A fine of €1 would not have an impact on that. It would still be a criminal offence from that point of view. If a mother were to get an abortion pill for her daughter or if a woman were to get an abortion bill from another country, they would still be criminalised. They would still have to go to a court and would be known to have accessed an abortion pill. This Bill does not provide for decriminalising the act of accessing an abortion pill or accessing an abortion and if it was passed tomorrow, I do not believe that any health professional would procure an abortion for a women having regard to it.
That is a difficult situation.
I have talked to people about the Bill. Some have said it is a great Bill as it makes an ass of the Act in reducing the 14-year sentence to a €1 fine; others have said they do not agree with it because they feel it is a bit of a stunt. However, any debate we have in the Dáil on the question of abortion is good. I have yet to talk to a number of people and want to talk to more people and see the feedback I get about the Bill. Any debate we have here that raises the issue and gets it into the communities and the public arena is worthwhile. That there is legislation that could put one in jail for 14 years for accessing an abortion pill is absolutely outrageous, and this should feed into debate over the next few days and International Women's Day. Nothing can take away from the fact that the only measure that will decriminalise women, doctors, general practitioners and everybody else involved in this issue is repeal of the eighth amendment. We must do that, we must fight for it and we must keep pushing for it. We must also repeal the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Abortion should be accessible as early as possible and as late as necessary and there is generally a feeling among the population now that we need that change. I have yet to make my mind up whether I will support the Bill. I will vote on it on Thursday, but I want to get a little more advice from people before I make a decision.
The eighth amendment states: "The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right". The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 defines the circumstances under which termination of pregnancy is allowed, namely, pregnancy endangering the life of the mother, including through a risk of suicide. Deputy Bríd Smith is correct in stating the 14-year sentence for a woman procuring an abortion in this country is harsh. I believe a referendum will be put to the people regarding repeal of the eighth amendment, and it would be absolutely correct because this is a very important decision which must be decided by the people. It is a very important social issue which cannot be decided other than by the people. I am not in favour of termination of pregnancy on demand, but neither am I in favour of prosecuting a woman with a potential 14-year sentence.
Advances in medicine have now developed to the extent that one does not need to go into hospital to have a termination of pregnancy. One can have a medical termination at home, certainly early in pregnancy, and this makes the procurement of a termination a much more vague process. This is as much a moral issue as a social, medical and legal issue and it is becoming more complicated as time goes on. If it were easy to resolve, we would have resolved it long before now.
Regarding the Bill before us, criminalising women in vulnerable situations is harsh and uncaring. I would not be able to carry out an abortion other than for medical reasons to preserve the life of the mother. That is my personal feeling. Balancing the right to life of the mother and the child is virtually impossible. I believe both have a right to life, not one or the other. The hard choices inevitably must be made so, by taking the moral, medical, social and legal considerations into account, each situation must be judged by its own individual merits. I agree that women should not be criminalised but disagree that abortion on demand should be available. A life is a life.
I cannot support the Bill. However, I do not condemn the people who have put it before us; I just do not agree with their point of view. I have my own point of view and believe, as Deputy Michael Harty has said, that the mother's life is paramount and needs to be defended. However, I believe there are laws in the country good enough to protect the mother.
I would be worthless in this world if I could not defend the right of a little baby to live. My first granddaughter will be two years old in a few months time. From watching her since she was very small until now, I would have no use in this world if I could not do everything to give every other little baby that is conceived and coming into the world a fair chance at life. Life is precious from when the baby forms in the womb. That is my belief, and I will stand by my beliefs for as long as I live. It is very important that small babies be allowed to come into the world and that we do our best to protect them. I will vote against the Bill as I will against any referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. Those are my views and, while I have said already that I respect the people bringing this Bill before us, I ask them to respect my views and the people I represent who have that same view.
This Bill proposes to amend section 22 of the so-called Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. I sat on the health committee at the time of the passing of the Bill and saw what happened and the shutting out of views other than those that were so-called sympathetic to abortion. Section 22 provides:
(1) It shall be an offence to intentionally destroy unborn human life.
(2) A person who is guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on indictment to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years, or both.
However, as the Minister of State made clear, it is up to the Director of Public Prosecutions, in a very careful and arduous examination, to consider the matter at hand before any prosecutions take place, and very few have taken place. I welcome the Minister of State's stance. The Bill proposes to decrease this penalty so that a person guilty of the offence would be liable to a maximum fine of €1. This is one of the most disturbing pieces of legislation that has ever come before the House, certainly in my time. If passed, it would reduce and trivialise human life in a manner that can be only called contemptuous. It makes a mockery not only of the value of human life, but also of the law. It would effectively remove all restrictions and all sanctions in respect of the intentional destruction of human life. It is a political stunt that is deeply distasteful. The Bill's proponents have equated the value of human life and the penalty for destroying that life with a fine of less than the price of a cup of coffee. The Bill will, however, serve to highlight the underlying thinking and mentality of those proposing it. It clearly sets out the agenda that no meaningful safeguards should exist for the protection of the unborn child, and I could not live with that. This is horrific legislation that I will oppose.
The likes of Mr. Soros and company are funding many of the pro-abortion lobbies and trying to interfere in our democratic process. As far as the so-called Citizens' Assembly and the so-called assessment and choosing of the 99 people who sit on it are concerned, I wish them well and thank them for their service. However, that nine counties, including mine, Deputy Danny Healy-Rae's and others, could be left out of that process of so-called consultation is shameful. It was a flawed process, and the way in which the PR company was picked was stage-managed. Even a blind man could see that. As to the fact that the Citizens' Assembly is running at all, this House is a citizens' assembly to which I, thankfully, and many of my colleagues were elected over a year ago. We should have the courage to vote on and make legislation. If we must hold a referendum, let the people decide it. We should not have this mockery, shambolic assemblies and so on as a cover.
Ba mhaith lion a rá leis an Teach anocht go bhfuil an Comhaontas Glas sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo. Once again in this House, we find ourselves discussing the need to repeal an uncompromising, extremely rigid Article in the Constitution which has caused untold unnecessary suffering to many Irish women and families since its inception in 1983. One of the many lessons to be learned from 1983 is the need for the Legislature to be trusted as the Constitution is not the place and is unsuitable for detailed provisions, which tie the hands of future generations.
The Bill before the Dáil tonight on the eve of International Women's Day highlights the appalling way in which we treat our women in Ireland. The Thirty-second Dáil and the Ireland of 2017 has an opportunity with this Bill to say a firm "no" to criminalising women. We have not only abandoned women by forcing them to leave their own country to access a safe medical procedure, we have compounded the suppression by threatening and sanctioning women and doctors with severe punishment and threatening them with jail sentences of up to 14 years. This threat and stigma surrounding abortion puts women in a dangerous position and continues to tie the hands of doctors when it comes to emergency scenarios, which, if not responded to properly, as this country has learned to its eternal shame, can result in the unnecessary and avoidable deaths of mothers. We have also made our doctors powerless and placed women in frightening and inhumane situations. The heartbreaking personal journeys that we are all aware of have shown that we need to do everything within our power as legislators to ensure we do not punish women but rather show compassion for the difficult decisions that face women in this country. Women should not have to steal away from their country to access a safe medical procedure and not one woman’s life should ever be put in unnecessary danger. Women should not be branded, punished and treated as criminals.
The Green Party recognises the ongoing work of the Citizens' Assembly but this does not mean that we abdicate our duties as legislators. The Government's amendment to the Bill paralyses that legislative function. The truth is this and previous Governments have lacked the political courage to deal once and for all with the issue. If this proposed legislative change is all we can do for now as legislators as we await a Government of courage, let us do exactly that.
It is difficult, given the context in which this debate is taking place, not to remark on the extraordinary inconsistency of people who oppose women having the right to choose abortion and to control their own bodies and lives on the grounds they are concerned for the life of unborn children when the very same people stood by while babies and their mothers were treated in an absolutely shocking, obscene and abominable way. It gives the lie to that when one looks at the horror of the Tuam babies, the Magdalen laundries and the Bethany Home or at the experience of people in the care of the State who were being sexually and physically abused. It does not add up that the people who allowed that to happen then say they are concerned for the life of unborn children. There seems to be a supreme hypocrisy in all that. The sharp edge of that hypocrisy is a situation where a woman who chooses to try to exercise control over her own body and make choices about whether or not to continue with a pregnancy could be subject to a 14-year criminal sentence. It is beyond belief. That is what this Bill is about. There is a 14-year criminal sentence on the Statute Book for a woman who procures an abortion or abortion pill or for anybody who assists her in procuring those things. It is 14 years in prison. We are not suggesting for one moment that this Bill resolves all the problems around a woman's right to choose or the urgent necessity of a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, which must be done forthwith as far as we are concerned. It should never have been hived off to a Citizens' Assembly but is a decision the people should have the right to take. It is very important to say that even if the eighth amendment is repealed this will still be in the Statute Book. It is highly possible that the main parties in this country, which have opposed abortion, and the forces who oppose abortion will prevail in achieving a restricted form of abortion rights, which limits it to a very narrow set of circumstances. Any woman who procures an abortion outside of those restrictive circumstances will still be subject to a 14-year prison sentence. We cannot fully decriminalise, as should be the case, and fully and completely remove the obnoxious, abhorrent, criminal stigma the State has put on women who make a choice to terminate a pregnancy because of the eighth amendment. That is why it must be repealed. Even if we repeal the eighth amendment, many women will still be subject or may be subject to a 14-year prison sentence, which is utterly obnoxious and abhorrent. That is what we are trying to draw people's attention to. Whatever else we need to discuss about the repeal of the eighth amendment or about whether women should have the right to choose, as we believe, or whether it should be limited, as others believe, we are asking people to decide whether they believe it is acceptable there is a prison sentence of 14 years for a woman procuring an abortion pill or for doing something in this country that the State acknowledges women do every day in their thousands by going across to Britain to do in another jurisdiction. That is the choice; it is a simple one. I do not see how anybody has sustained, or could sustain, an argument that a 14-year prison sentence is acceptable in any kind of civilised society for a woman who makes a decision about her own pregnancy and life and body. To me, it is simple.
Here we are again with the left bringing the movement for women's bodily autonomy and women's rights into the Dáil. Outside the Dáil there is a majority who support the repeal of the eighth amendment and a majority who support the extension of abortion rights. In here, in this debate, we are in a small minority because of how conservative and how influenced by the Catholic Church the establishment is. The response of the various political parties is to hide again from this issue. Fine Gael's response is to hide behind the Citizens' Assembly, an assembly which is itself a hiding exercise and an attempt to put the question off far into the future. Fianna Fáil is also hiding behind a Citizens' Assembly. Its leader has said the real citizens' assembly is in the Dáil.
It is hiding behind a spurious argument about legality and constitutionality. There is nothing to that argument. Sinn Féin, interestingly, is hiding behind the legality argument while also arguing that this Bill does not go far enough because it does not repeal the eighth amendment. In reality, it is hiding because it is not a pro-choice party. Unfortunately, it is in favour of abortion rights in extremely limited circumstances. While we welcome the support of the Labour Party, it should be noted that it is ironic that the punishment and criminalisation against which the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and his party colleagues intend to vote was introduced by a Government of which they were a part. This raises a question over the so-called "proud history" of the Labour Party. I suggest it would be more accurate to refer to the proud history of the labour movement.
I want to clarify the question of legality. This Bill is an attempt to do as much as possible, within the framework of a barbaric and backward Constitution that needs fundamental amendment, to come close to ending the criminalisation of women who access abortion. It is precisely for that reason that the Bill is not unconstitutional. Rather than eliminating the penalty altogether, which is what we would have liked to do, the most we can do within the framework of the Constitution as it stands is to reduce the penalty from 14 years to one year. The arguments being made by Fianna Fáil and others are nonsense. We agree with those who say they are in favour of the repeal of the eighth amendment and those who say they are pro-choice. We are asking them to vote in favour of this Bill. It is very simple.
The Bill does not solve all the problems. It does not repeal the eighth amendment. It does not provide for abortion for women who need it. It does not provide for the necessary health services. We are fighting for all of those things. The establishment tries to hide, but women cannot hide from the criminalisation that is happening on a daily basis. The 12 women a day who are forced to travel abroad and the women who access abortion pills face this potential criminal sanction. The movements outside the Dáil will not allow the establishment to hide from the need to repeal the eighth amendment. Those who mobilised today on the bus for repeal, those who will mobilise tomorrow with the strike for repeal and those who will participate in the march for repeal will not let the establishment get away with it.
It is important, and it is not wrong, to name the opponents of the change that is needed in our society. The Catholic Church and the religious right were responsible for the insertion of the eighth amendment in the first place with the agreement of the establishment parties. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív said that his views on this issue have nothing to do with religion. He said it is his independent belief that a foetus has some sort of independent existence. I do not believe it is an accident that this belief is shared by Catholic Church. The Constitution of this State is riddled with the Catholic ethos. This is an expression of the historic relationship between the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the State. It is not an accident that the only other constitution in the world with a ban on abortion is the constitution of Chile, which was introduced by Pinochet with the co-operation of a big part of the clergy during his dictatorship. The Catholic Church is the church of symphysiotomy, the Magdalen laundries and the so-called mother and baby home in Tuam. It attempts to lecture women about morality. The church and the rest of the conservative establishment cannot talk seriously about being pro-life. They could be much better described as being pro-birth.
I will conclude by making a point about respect. Many Deputies have appealed for respect to be shown during this debate. That is fine. We should have a respectful discussion. This is fundamentally about respect for women. The calls for respect are about policing the tone of women and saying women should not be demanding full abortion rights. The key thing is respect for women's rights and women's bodies.
I thank Deputy Bríd Smith and her AAA-PBP colleagues and Deputies Catherine Martin and Eamon Ryan of the Green Party for publishing the Bill that is before the House. I thank all the Deputies who have spoken on this issue for their contributions to the debate. This is the third occasion in my ten months as Minister for Health that I have addressed this House on the issue of abortion. I hope my own feelings on this matter are clear. My views on the road we need to travel have been put clearly on the record of the House. My generation has not had its say on this important issue in a constitutional referendum.
It is clear that public opinion on this issue is not as cut and dried as some people would have us believe. That is why the work of the Citizens' Assembly is so valuable. Those of us who followed the assembly's proceedings at the weekend could see that its work is now at an advanced stage. While I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of the assembly's work, I wish to reiterate my clear belief that we need a referendum on the eighth amendment to enable those of us who have not yet had our voices heard to be heard. The key to the success of any referendum is to try to create a majority viewpoint for constitutional change.
I am proud of the record of my party on this issue. When we were in government with the Labour Party, we tackled generations of neglect following the X case by introducing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. Was it enough? Did it go far enough? I have already said I think we need to look at the eighth amendment through a constitutional referendum. Did it go as far as this House could legally go at that time? It absolutely did. That was the very clear advice available to the Government at that time.
While the Bill we are discussing this evening is well-meaning, I do not believe it is the way forward. I have received clear advice from the Attorney General that Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution imposes a positive obligation on the State "by its laws" to respect, defend and vindicate "the right to life of the unborn... with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother". This means that the termination of pregnancy is prohibited by law except where there is a real and substantive risk to the life of mother. This prohibition is set out in section 22 of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, which restates the existing prohibition on abortion in modern terms.
If the State is to fulfil its obligations under Article 40.3.3°, this prohibition must be backed up by an effective sanction that reflects the seriousness of the offence and provides the trial judge with sentencing options that can be tailored to the particular circumstances of cases which, as we all know, can vary widely. This provision was carefully considered at policy level during the drafting of the 2013 Act with a view to providing a calibrated, proportionate and constitutionally robust provision. As those of us who were Members of the Dáil or the Seanad at the time will recall, this issue was debated at great length. The Government of the day sought the advice of the Attorney General and that advice was scrutinised at great length.
I hope nobody in this House would wish to see any sort of punitive punishment imposed on a woman in a crisis pregnancy or a difficult pregnancy. In 2013, this House sought to deal with the legal framework we were trying to put in place in a manner that was respectful of the constitutional reality. I believe the constitutional reality needs to change. I believe there needs to be a referendum to make that happen. I hope the Citizens' Assembly brings us to that point. As I have said, the provisions of the 2013 Act were carefully drafted at a policy level.
The Private Members' Bill before us seeks to reduce to €1 the existing penalty for the intentional destruction of unborn human life. This penalty is so low that it would represent a failure to respect, defend and vindicate the right to life of the unborn, as the State is currently obliged to do under Bunreacht na hÉireann. It would also remove any discretion at all from a trial judge, who would not be permitted to pass a sentence reflecting the gravity of the offence in a particular case. The circumstances in which the life of the unborn is lost can vary significantly across a number of cases. For instance, a judge would be unable to impose an effective penalty in a case in which an abortifacient is administered to a pregnant woman without her knowledge or consent.
I respectfully suggest this legislation would have many inadvertent and unintended consequences - I accept that they are unintended - on a woman, on a woman's well-being and on the defence of a woman from certain crimes that may be committed against her and her baby. The clear advice of the Attorney General, which I am sharing with the House, is that this Bill fails to discharge the State's obligations under Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution and would, if passed, be likely to be subject to immediate successful legal challenge. It is clear to me as a member of the Government and as Minister for Health that we cannot accept this amendment to the 2013 Act.
As we all know, Article 40.3.3° is under active consideration by the Citizens' Assembly. This House has already taken steps, through the passage of a motion and through consideration at the Business Committee, to assess what it will do when it receives the report of the Citizens' Assembly in order to enact change, if that is the direction the assembly brings us in. It is for this reason and the reasons outlined earlier that I cannot support a Second Reading of this Bill. I ask the House to allow the Citizens' Assembly, which was established by resolution of this House and Seanad Éireann, to conclude its deliberations on the eighth amendment as quickly as possible prior to further consideration of potential legislative and constitutional change, including the various elements of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.
As people know, this is due to report to the Oireachtas during the first half of this year. As we are now into the third month of the year, that will happen within three months.
It is for that reason the Government tables its reasoned amendment. It is important to note the difference between a reasoned amendment and opposition to a Bill. The reasoned amendment declines to give the Bill a reading on Second Stage for all the various reasons I have outlined, as opposed to disagreeing with the overall principle of what the proposers of this Bill are trying to achieve. When we pass laws in this House we must be cognisant of the Constitution, regardless of whether one likes it. We must be aware of the legal obligations it places on the State and the Government and if we want to change that reality, we need a referendum. I hope we will have a referendum and that the Citizens' Assembly will bring us to that point.
If the Minister is serious about his opposition to the eighth amendment, he would urge support for this Bill as the passing of it would show how outrageous is the eighth amendment. It was stated in the debate by a spokesperson on the Government side that while Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution prohibits abortion with certain exemptions, this prohibition would be ineffective without the provision of a criminal prevention of the offence in question. I put it to the House that this is a powerful argument for the scrapping of the eighth amendment. Most people do not know and would be shocked to learn it is part of the law of the land-----
-----that a woman could be jailed for 14 years for procuring an abortion. What a scandal it is that we could potentially involve the police, courts and judges in what is the most intimate sphere of life for any woman. What a horrible law this is and it shows how rotten is the eighth amendment and why it must go. That is in addition to all the other arguments.
I will read into the record of the House the names of the Ministers currently sitting at the Cabinet tabled who voted in the previous Dáil to keep the wording in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 that allows a woman to be jailed for 14 years for procuring an abortion in this State. They are Deputies Richard Bruton, Simon Coveney, Michael Creed, Regina Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Charles Flanagan, Enda Kenny, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, Denis Naughten, Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris. I see there are campaigners for repealing the eighth amendment in the Visitors Gallery. I would say to them without hesitation that the names of those Deputies who vote against taking that horrible provision out of the laws of the land in the vote on Thursday, as well as the Deputies who abstain, should be made known throughout the land. I have no hesitation in saying they should be named and shamed.
This Bill appears before the Dáil at a very timely moment. Tomorrow, on 8 March, we have International Women's Day and it is an historic moment for women in Ireland. For the first time, all marches, rallies and demonstrations taking place on the day are unmistakably linked with the urgent need to repeal the eighth amendment. Tomorrow, thousands of women and men will take to the streets of our major cities expressing their disgust with the anachronistic laws in this country that treat women as criminals for wanting the obvious, which is access to and control over their bodies and reproductive rights. I am proud to say the Anti-Austerity Alliance Deputies will be taking part in as many of these actions as we can tomorrow and we are calling on everybody to join us.
It is horrific to think the history of the State is absolutely tainted from the get-go with the appalling treatment of women and women's health. It amounts to appalling treatment I would not hesitate to describe as crimes against women, some of which the State and church are still pretending never happened or were not sufficiently serious to merit full apology or proper redress. These include symphysiotomy, the Magdalen laundries, revelations about the Tuam home cruelties, the Grace case and the social stigma that unmarried mothers had to endure for years, as well as the punishments that came with that. There were hundreds of cases of sexual abuse being covered up and, more recently, women were denied the dignity of their own choice over their body. There are examples from the X case 25 years ago to Ms Y one year ago, the case of an under-age suicidal rape victim and asylum seeker who was forced to carry on with her pregnancy until it was safe to conduct a caesarean section, despite repeatedly asking for termination of her unwanted and forced-upon pregnancy. This is not to mention the cruelty committed every single day when women of all ages facing a plethora of different personal issues are forced to travel abroad, mainly to England, because the Constitution treats them as second-class citizens.
I will conclude as I do not want to eat into Deputy Bríd Smith's time. It is essential to bring forward Bills like this. Tomorrow, we will see a clear and unequivocal message from the thousands of people who will take part in the strike for repeal and the march for repeal. It is time for Ireland to shake off any relic of a backwards and mediaeval state and decriminalise abortion. We must stop exporting it and remove all the legal obstacles for women to access their bodily autonomy.
I thank all Deputies who supported me in this. I forgot at the beginning to thank the Green Party in particular for signing the Bill and supporting it. My comrades beside me have done a great job. That is why they are my comrades, as they do a great job in being logical, unlike some of what I heard tonight. None of the other Deputies really addressed the issue. Why do we have a 14-year sentence for women and the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, has told me that is the best they could do when they brought in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill? Is that the best he could do? Please give me a break.
Please give a break to the young women in this country who face daily the obstacle of not being able to procure abortions at home. The Minister and I know, as well as the dogs in the street, that they can go abroad and we can export the problem. They can also obtain the materials for an abortion illegally over the web. I happen to be in favour of a united Ireland and I find it difficult to recognise the Border at all. I am certainly against a hard Border. Currently, north of the Border, three women have faced the courts with a punitive sentence of life imprisonment being available to the courts in Northern Ireland as punishment for obtaining the abortion pill. That is the reason I am putting forward this legislation. I am not gagging or seeking sensationalism. I am not messing. I am seriously saying to the Deputies in this House, "How dare you?"
Most of the other people who spoke tonight against the Bill were men. Are there no women in Fianna Fáil for example? Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív maintains that I do not respect him, but I absolutely respect his beliefs, as well as those of his wife and anybody else in the House. I do not respect their imposition of their beliefs on me, the women in the Visitors Gallery or anybody else in this country. They have no right to impose their personal beliefs on the rest of us and allow for a 14-year sentence for that act.
We must have some sense of urgency and not wait for what will at least be another year before the Citizens' Assembly's product comes back to us and we have a vote on it. As Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett rightly and eloquently pointed out, even then this law and the punitive 14-year sentence will remain in the Statute Book. At least the Minister understood what I was talking about, unlike the Taoiseach, who referred to a partner kicking a woman in the belly and getting away with a €1 fine. How silly, ridiculous and dismissive of the seriousness with which we are dealing with this matter.
I appeal to Deputies to speak to the subject and think about the issue. This is a 14-year sentence that can be applied to women, counsellor, doctors, advisers and anybody helping a woman to procure an abortion.
I have helped a young woman to get an abortion pill and I could face a 14-year sentence. I am past my sell-by date in terms of being able to carry a child but I have helped other women to terminate a pregnancy because they found themselves in a crisis. I could get 14 years and many of us in this country could be subject to it.
Nobody in this House, apart from those who support the Bill, seems to be taking this issue seriously. If a single woman, doctor or anybody else ends up being arrested or in court, shame on those Deputies. They will bear the responsibility for that. They have an opportunity to vote against this amendment of the Government, which basically argues that the status quoshould remain and the 14-year punishment is the best we can do. If it is the best those opposite can do, they should not be in government. They certainly do not represent the interests of women in this country.
It is unhealthy and immoral and must end. That is why I am saying our hands are tied in introducing legislation to decriminalise women and their practitioners absolutely and utterly. This was the advice from the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser which told us it was unconstitutional. It did not state this about the proposed reduction of the sentence from 14 years to €1. It stated the opposite. It told us that we were free to go ahead, given that it was not unconstitutional. The Minister is receiving different advice from the Attorney General. The Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser gave us this advice and we should put it to the test. If the Minister and other Deputies think it is a problem, they should amend it and tell us what they think is appropriate. If this is the best the Minister can do, perhaps he might propose giving them six months, three years, five years or €10. If this is the best he can do because it was the best he could do, he is failing women and should not be Minister for Health.