Wednesday, 23 May 2018
As the referendum campaign draws to a close, it is important to put on the record that this has largely been a very respectful debate with many people having genuinely held positions on the proposition before the people. For my own part, I can genuinely say that on the doorsteps and in meeting with people in the streets people have been very courteous and very fair irrespective of the positions they hold. It is also true to say that many people out there are still conflicted. Many people have had, and are having, difficulties making up their minds on this particular issue. They have articulated this openly to us when we have met them. That is not surprising given the issue involved, which is complex, sensitive and deeply personal for many people. Our cross-party Oireachtas joint committee dealt with the issue thoroughly following on from the deliberations of the Citizens' Assembly. The recommendations of the committee have now been largely reflected by the Minister in the proposed heads of a Bill which he has published.
It is important to state some key facts unequivocally in respect of that legislation. Before I do, it is important to say that if one reads all of the evidence given to the committee, all of the obstetricians who spoke to it were adamant and very clear that where a baby in the womb was viable, they would always the deliver the baby safely, no matter what the circumstances. That is reflected in heads 4 and 11 of the proposed legislation published by the Minister. In addition, it is very clear that the proposed legislation will not allow termination on the grounds of disability, which has been claimed at times. The Taoiseach can also confirm that late-term abortions are prohibited in the proposed legislation, with some exceptions in respect of fatal foetal abnormality and care in a genuine medical emergency. The fundamental point I am making is that the proposed legislation which would come before this House if there was a "Yes" vote in no way represents abortion on demand nor is it comparable to the legislative regime in the UK. That needs to be said.
Over 125,000 people, or approximately that figure, have registered on the supplementary register. Many of them are young people. When I was on Charlemont Bridge with Deputy Jim O'Callaghan last week, they cycled past us in their droves. What is interesting is that many were from all over Ireland and, in many cases, will need to get back to vote on Friday. There may be challenges in doing that and I ask the Taoiseach to join with me in asking employers to be flexible in facilitating people to get out earlier to vote. It is good for our democracy.
I echo the comments of Deputy Martin. When this debate around the referendum started some months ago, I expressed my hope that the debate would be respectful and would never be personalised. With a few exceptions the debate has been broadly respectful of opinions on both sides. In almost all cases, it has not been personalised and that has been welcome. It is very different from the experience people would have had in previous referendums. People who have been in this House longer than me have told me stories of the kind of abuse that public representatives were subject to in the 1990s and 1980s during referendum campaigns on this issue. I am glad that, in the main, that has not been the case on this occasion. I thank Deputies Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald, Brendan Howlin and the other party leaders for their support for this referendum proposition.
I also thank them for showing leadership within their own parties on this issue, which is not always the easiest thing to do. I have often heard people describe this as the Government's proposal in debates on television and radio. It is a proposal being put forward by the Government, but it is much more than that. It has wide cross-party support and arose from recommendations from an all-party committee which included people like Deputy Billy Kelleher-----
-----and Deputy Lisa Chambers, people from my party such as Senator Catherine Noone and Deputy Kate O'Connell, people from the Labour Party and from Sinn Féin, and others. Therefore, while it is a Government proposal it has cross-party support, if not universal support. It had its origins in the Citizens' Assembly-----
-----which was established almost two years ago by my forebear, the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny. The assembly took into account the views of 100 citizens who sat through all of the evidence for weeks on end and did not come to their recommendations lightly.
We listened to citizens, co-operated on an all-party basis and then put a proposal to the people. I confirm what Deputy Martin said. Head 4 in the general scheme refers specifically to viability. It says that terminations will not occur on the grounds of health or risk to the life of the mother if the child can survive outside of the womb. In such cases, doctors will perform an early delivery and give that child all the neonatal support our paediatricians can offer. Once the baby in the womb reaches the point of viability, that is what will be done. Late-term abortions are prohibited and are only permitted in two very rare circumstances. One is in the case of a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality as a result of which the child will not survive for long outside of the womb. The second refers to those very rare emergency situations in which doctors have to act and act quickly. Written into that emergency provision in head 5 is a double immediacy test. The doctor needs to be able to act immediately and a termination must be immediately necessary. Those are very rare circumstances and something similar is indeed already provided for in the 2013 legislation.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. To reiterate, I made my comments this morning with the people outside of this House who are genuinely wrestling with this issue in mind. Many in this House have also wrestled with it. I invite people to watch the powerful testimony of Pat and Mary Lyons on joe.ieabout their daughter's journey to Liverpool in the context of a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality and about the very difficult and unacceptable nature of that journey. They ask for women in such situations to be given a choice. That is what exercised many members of the committee, as did issues of fatal foetal abnormality, issues of rape and incest, the reality of the availability of the abortion pill up to ten weeks-----
That was not the intention of the cross-party committee. I respect all views in the House, including the views of those who have a different view from mine. I genuinely do because it is not an easy issue.
Deputy Micheál Martin made a very good suggestion in appealing to employers to facilitate staff who want to participate in the referendum. I hope there will be a big turnout. In the referendum in 1983, only 55% of people voted. I hope more people will take part in the upcoming referendum, an important exercise in democracy. I very much appeal to employers to allow their staff to make it to the polling stations on Friday. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. This is in order to maximise participation by people. I was knocking on doors in Clonsilla in my constituency last night and met somebody from Westmeath who will be going home to vote. It does not take a long time to get from Blanchardstown to Westmeath but there are people who will be travelling to west Cork, Donegal and other places. These are very long journeys and I hope employers will offer some flexibility to people in that regard, no matter how they decide to vote.