Wednesday, 17 January 2018
Report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution: Statements
I am glad to be back in the Seanad once again. I stand before the House fully aware of the sensitive and complex nature of the matter we are about to discuss. I am also aware of the wide range of views that exist within this House and throughout the country on this subject. I am sure, however, that it is possible for us to have a respectful debate on the issue. My own personal position is that there is a need for constitutional reform. I support repeal of the eighth amendment and strongly support a woman's right to bodily autonomy. The Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and the Citizens' Assembly before it have shown us a good example in this regard. While the views of their members may have been different, the debate never became personal. Today, too, each of us is approaching the issue from a position of wanting to contribute to the common good and to do what is best for the people of Ireland.
Before getting to the substance of the recommendations, I wish to take a moment to commend all members of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution for their work and thank them all for their contributions. Senator Noone, in particular, must be thanked for her calm and balanced handling of the issue as Chairman. I also commend and thank the chair of the Citizens' Assembly, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, and the members for their careful deliberations and valuable contributions.
As we all know, addressing the legal position on termination of pregnancy in Ireland would require a change to our Constitution. Article 40.3.3° of Bunreacht na hÉireann 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 currently regulates access to lawful termination of pregnancy. 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 or not.
Last year, the Government put in place a process to examine Article 40.3.3°. A Citizens' Assembly was established with the first order of business being to consider the eighth amendment of the Constitution, Article 40.3.3°. In June 2017, the assembly recommended that the eighth amendment be replaced with a provision that explicitly authorises the Oireachtas to legislate to address termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn and any rights of the woman. The assembly also recommended a number of reasons for which a termination of pregnancy should be lawful in Ireland and the gestational limits that should apply. An all-party Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution was then established by the Oireachtas to consider the Citizens' Assembly's report and recommendations. I should note that the recommendations contained in the committee's report represent the views of the majority of members but that there was not unanimous agreement on them.
The main conclusion of the committee's work is that change is needed to extend the grounds for lawful termination of pregnancy in the State. In order to effect that change, the committee recommended Article 40.3.3° be removed from the Constitution by repeal. The committee then went on to make recommendations on the grounds on which termination of pregnancy should be permitted in Ireland if Article 40.3.3° were repealed. In the first instance, the committee recommended that termination of pregnancy should be lawful where the life or health of the pregnant woman is at risk, without any distinction between risk to physical or mental health. Assessments should be made by no fewer than two specialist physicians, and gestational limits should be guided by the best available medical evidence.
Second, the committee accepted that it should be lawful to terminate a pregnancy that is the result of rape or sexual assault. However, there were concerns about the practicality of including rape as a ground in legislation. The committee was therefore of the opinion that it would be more appropriate to deal with the grounds of rape or sexual assault by permitting termination of pregnancy with no restriction as to the reason up to 12 weeks' gestation, provided it is availed of through a GP-led service and delivered in a clinical context.
On foetal abnormality, the committee recommended that where the unborn child is diagnosed with a foetal abnormality that is likely to result in death before or shortly after birth, it should be lawful to terminate a pregnancy without restriction as to gestational limit. Where there is a diagnosis of a foetal abnormality that is not likely to result in death before or shortly after birth, the committee recommended that the law should not provide for termination of pregnancy. This differs from the recommendation put forward by the Citizens' Assembly, which proposed permitting the procedure up to 22 weeks' gestation in such cases. I hope this divergence will help to reassure people about the careful consideration which the committee gave to this issue. On this point, as Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, I attach particular importance to the committee's statement that the State should provide specific resources in order that there are social supports for parents and better facilities for people whose children have special needs. This is a particularly important issue for me as Minister of State.
Finally, the majority of members of the committee accepted the five ancillary recommendations set out by the Citizens' Assembly in its final report. They also made recommendations of their own focusing on decriminalising abortion, free access to contraception, comprehensive sex education, and obstetric care and counselling.
This Government is fully committed to ensuring that all women accessing maternity services should receive the same standard of safe, high-quality care. Every woman from every corner of Ireland should expect and be able to access the maternity services she needs. The implementation of the national maternity strategy, Creating a Better Future Together, will, I am sure, help this aim to be realised. Furthermore, officials in the Department of Health, under the chairmanship of the Chief Medical Officer, have established a group to address the recommendations and formulate an effective, comprehensive response to the issues raised by the committee in its ancillary recommendations. The group will cover the following areas, both within the Department itself and the HSE: sexual health; primary care; acute hospitals; disability services; mental health; as well as any other areas subsequently deemed relevant.Sometimes we are presented with the most difficult challenging problems to deal with, areas in which the way forward may not seem clear cut. In these circumstances, I believe our health care professionals are best placed to advise on the optimal treatment options.
We should allow them, in consultation with women, to exercise the clinical judgment and highest standards of medical practice which we know they daily uphold. I like to think that I come from the tradition of Wolfe Tone and the late Tony Gregory which talks about including Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters on this island, with a strong equality emphasis at the heart of our society. I now look forward to a constructive debate on the issues raised by the committee. In closing, I would stress again the need for us all to recognise the sensitivities involved and for our discourse to be respectful of differing views.
I thank the Minister of State. I remind Senators that they have ten minutes each and that time can be shared. There is no guillotine. Everybody can speak for ten minutes if they so choose. A number of Senators have indicated to me and I have written their names down. A number of people in the Chamber have not yet told me in what order they want to speak but I will take them. That settles that. I ask everybody to be as respectful of everybody else's position as they can be and that we have a sensible and comprehensive debate in a reasonable fashion.
Ag tús an díospóireacht seo ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le gach ball den choiste, na Teachtaí agus na Seanadóirí, go háirithe Seanadóir Buttimer, Seanadóir Gavan, Seanadóir Mullen, Seanadóir Noone, Seanadóir O’Sullivan agus Seanadóir Ruane. I rith na Nollag bhí seans agam staidéar a dhéanamh ar an tuairisc dheiridh.Ach tá go leor ceisteanna agam agus tá imní orm. Tá an ceist seo an-chasta. It is as I said, a complex issue, despite the attempt by many to simplify it into a binary issue.
The opportunity over Christmas to study and reflect on the report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution was one I took very seriously. It is a profound question and a profound decision to attempt to remove the rights of unborn children from the Constitution, irrespective of what law or laws might be proposed here in the Oireachtas. One could, for example, be in favour of repealing the eighth amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann in the mistaken belief that it removes the constitutional and legal protection to the unborn, thereby paving the way for abortion. There are some that believe that the unborn child is not a human. That is not my view, both personally and professionally as a doctor. When an overjoyed or indeed anxious expectant mother presents to a doctor to confirm a pregnancy or to review their health status during pregnancy, the doctor will carry out two sets of clinical tests and observations. A doctor will conduct a clinical assessment of the mother and carry out an ultrasound of the baby, to ensure that it is developing in a healthy manner.
Repealing the eighth amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann is unlikely to guarantee abortion without restriction, because as the Attorney General has advised and indeed other constitutional lawyers have pointed out, there are other parts of the Constitution that protect the right to life of the unborn. This is something that An Taoiseach outlined yesterday, when he addressed this complexity. He said: "Because we would find ourselves in a very strange situation if we repeal the eighth amendment only to find out there are other rights to life that exist in other parts of the Constitution, that might then make any legislation we pass unconstitutional." He may be right, I do not know, but I look forward to hearing other speakers, or indeed the Minister, address this question that the Taoiseach has raised.
I will move away from the constitutional aspects of this issue, because we have yet to see the referendum Bill and the proposed legislation that would be used if the referendum were to pass. One of the fundamental issues I have with the current unrestricted proposal up to 12 weeks, and I say this is in the absence of a referendum Bill or draft legislation, is that it appears to equate fatal foetal abnormalities with unlimited access to abortion. The issue of the protection of life is somewhat linked to a highly relevant issue I raised earlier today in this Chamber regarding the effective rationing of intensive care unit, ICU, beds in our public health system. In an earlier contribution I referred to the fact that the absence of an acute ICU bed, for example, should never be the reason that somebody dies. No doctor ever wants to be in this position. It runs contrary to our Hippocratic oath, the guidelines from the Medical Council, and as I told the Minister earlier, contrary to the reason I decided to get into medicine.
The protection and preservation of life is complex and it can also be tragic. As a doctor, I routinely have to sit down with family members and loved ones and say that in my professional opinion, having reviewed and assessed all of the options, the likelihood of survival is slim. I have given this bad news hundreds of times in my career. It never gets easier. In all those conversations I never thought that one of these reasons might be that an ICU bed was not available. However, following the logical thread of what is proposed here in the report from the joint committee, there could be a situation of the availability of abortion on economic or lifestyle grounds, for example, and that this could be given the same status as abortion arising from horrific cases of rape or incest, or indeed fatal foetal abnormalities.
In a way, I bring a unique perspective to this issue as I worked as a general practitioner in the UK for many years. Legislation in England, Scotland and Wales, specifically the Abortion Act 1967 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, allow a woman to have an abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy if two doctors agree that it is less likely to cause harm to her physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy. Of course we know that the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland and that abortion is legal there in very exceptional circumstances. The reason I raise the UK legislation is to point out a serious problem that I foresee with what is being proposed here.
It appears, and again we have no specific legislation to review, that the Government will accept the recommendations from the committee. As I understand it, this will create a regime of abortion on request for up to 12 weeks and this would occur in the GP setting or perhaps in a health clinic. In effect, it is proposed that GPs would prescribe abortion pills and that they would be taken under medical supervision of a GP. I stress this is my understanding of what is being proposed. Is this a way of trying to ensure that there are no abortion clinics in Ireland and that, in effect, the proposal would be to outsource the abortion clinic services to an already underresourced and overstretched general practice setting?
Has the Government, or indeed the Minister or officials, engaged with the GP representative groups on the specific aspect I highlighted, namely, the creation of an abortion clinic within surgeries around the country. Existing Medical Council guidelines require GPs to treat a woman who may have had an abortion. Section 21.3 of the Medical Council guidelines states: "You as a GP have a duty to provide care, support and follow-up services for women who have an abortion." Has the Minister, or any of his colleagues, had engagement with the Medical Council on what is being proposed? I feel this would be crucial.
Currently we are bound by the Guide to Professional Conduct and Ethics for Registered Medical Practitioners. Section 21 of this deals with abortion and section 22 deals with end-of-life care. The proposals appear to go a lot further than the law in the UK, for example, which I referred to earlier, because in the UK a doctor or nurse has the right to refuse to take part in abortion if they do not believe in abortion or have ethical issues about the protection of the unborn. GPs must refer a patient to another doctor or nurse and these rules are set down by the Medical Council in the UK and the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Have there been any discussions on these matters? If not, there needs to be. The law of unintended consequences could be at play here, because Dr. Rhona Mahony, the master of the National Maternity Hospital, has already said that it is her belief that the eighth amendment of Bunreacht na hÉireann is distorting clinical judgments. I cannot agree or disagree with this claim, as I am not on the front line of clinical work in obstetrics. The broader point that she raises regarding the criminal context of abortion in Ireland is an interesting one, when she said:
The issues really are quite medical. We are looking at a requirement for us to determine that a woman is at risk of dying, and that decision is made in a criminal context. It is under the shadow of a custodial sentence of 14 years [...] and I do believe that distorts clinical judgment.
The complexities that I have highlighted are designed to be constructive and the questions I have asked come from a very narrow area of this entire subject, but it is one of which I have intimate knowledge. Throwing labels on people and putting people in a category because of their deeply held views on these matters is very damaging. I know many people who are deeply traumatised by the issue of abortion, from both perspectives. It requires compassion and understanding to deal with a woman who is in a crisis pregnancy situation and to deal with a family to tell them that having reviewed the anatomical scans with the consultants, there is no longer any sign of life from their much wanted child.My wife Aislinn and I are blessed to have two young healthy children. They, like every child, have brought more joy to our lives than we ever could have known. An estimated 14,000 women, however, endure a miscarriage in Ireland every year and it is almost taboo to talk about it. I salute the courage of Kathryn Thomas who spoke recently on the "Late Late Show" about her own experiences.
In conclusion, there are really important aspects of the committee's report that deserve to be praised and I fully support them, specifically that all women should have access to the same standard of obstetrical care, for example early scanning, anatomical scanning, in other words scanning for anomalies, irrespective of their location or socioeconomic status.
The proposal to improve counselling services to support women is one I support, as well as the proposal to have a perinatal hospice service for those who wish to avail of it. The review of sexual health education with a focus on consent is a welcome proposal. I look forward to hearing the response from the Minister of State and Members of the House on this most sensitive personal issue.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I pay tribute to almost all the members of the committee, who put in a tremendous amount of work. Regardless of their own opinions, they treated each other with respect, for the most part. I pay particular tribute to the Chairman, who behaved tremendously well throughout. I say that as someone who rarely gives praise to Fine Gael but it is well deserved.
I will begin by referring to the 1983 referendum. I remember it well and I suspect the Minister of State does too. It was my first foray into politics as a 17 year old. I stood with the anti-amendment campaign as did my party. It was a horrible time, a time when many people, women in particular, felt suffocated by an all-encompassing campaign that relied on the surface on bright papal colours and slogans like "Yes for life, Baby." Underneath there were anti-choice groups such as the Life Education and Research Network, LEARN, telling people "We must remember that those who choose to travel to Britain for abortions do so for social reasons". It is quite a shocking statement. Equally shocking, incidentally, is any reference to choosing abortion for lifestyle reasons. I was quite taken aback to hear that in this Chamber. We have to remember these dark times. Then we had the infamous banner which said "the abortion mills of England grind Irish babies into blood that cries out to heaven for vengeance". That is what we had to put up with at that time. It is no wonder it was a campaign with no tolerance for people who held a different a view. It was a campaign that had open contempt for those of us arguing that the Constitution was no place to deal with complex issues around women's health. The previous year in 1982 I remember a girl on our school bus; she was a couple of years younger than me and she just disappeared one day. She could not have been more than 14 years old at the time. We gathered later that she had become pregnant and there was a suggestion it could have been incest. We never knew for sure because we never saw her again. That is how matters were dealt with in those days. Women and girls who found themselves pregnant were simply removed from our society. That was not in the 1950s but in the 1980s. A couple of years later when I went to college in Limerick, I lived beside the Good Shepherd Convent, which at that time was a prison for women who became pregnant. I did not know that because I was new to the city. I walked past it every day in blissful ignorance. They could probably hear me and my mates come in late at night, doing what young fellows do when they are at college. They were a stone's throw away from us, locked up because they had committed the sin of becoming pregnant but, not to worry, they were kept busy working as bonded labour in the convent dry cleaning business during the day. Again, this was all in the 1980s.
The only politician of note in Limerick to speak out against the proposed referendum was Jim Kemmy. After a vicious campaign of vilification, he lost his seat in the November 1982 election, ironically to a pro-life Labour Party Deputy. Jim Kemmy was on the right side of history on this issue, as was Dr. George Henry, the then master of the Rotunda, who, during that heated sectarian debate, had the bravery to say if the amendment was passed he failed to see how it could be possible to treat a mother with a serious illness knowing it would damage the foetus. How right he was. His expert opinion as a medical health care professional was ignored, just as hardcore fundamentalists today tell us to ignore the advice of our medical experts across Ireland. We cannot and should not ignore their evidence any longer. That is what the Oireachtas committee was tasked with considering. We were to bring in medical and legal experts to the committee to discuss the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly. We were to then make recommendations to the Government on the basis of that evidence. The evidence we received from our constitutional experts made the case many times that the Constitution is not the place for specific medical grounds to be enshrined and neither is it the place to regulate best medical practice. It is for these reasons and several others that the committee reached a conclusion that Article 40.3.3o should not be retained in full. That vote was taken and passed on 18 October at the conclusion of module 1. We then voted in December to recommend repealing and removing Article 40.3.3o from the Constitution in its entirety. The current situation whereby a woman can only have an abortion if she is otherwise going to die is simply not tenable in any society that is serious about protecting and respecting the lives of women. Professor Arulkumaran, president of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, explained to the committee that risk with regard to the life of the mother is something that can escalate in minutes or in hours. The current law does not allow our medical experts to act until it may be too late for a woman's life to be saved. Crucially, this testimony was tested and supported by every single medical expert who came before our committee. It was further supported by Dr. Rhona Mahony, the master of the National Maternity Hospital, who compared the current legislation with a situation of medical roulette with a woman's life. Doctors are mandated by the law to wait until the very moment at which a woman's illness turns from a risk to her health to a risk to her life. This goes against all other aspects of best medical health care. I ask Members to think of a loved one of their own - a partner, daughter, sister or niece - and ask themselves this question: if that person was ill or sick, would they want a doctor to have to wait and play medical roulette with her health until she was dying before they could intervene? We must be prepared to trust our doctors and medical professionals. It is plain and simple as "the eighth amendment creates unacceptable clinical risk" for women. That is a direct quote from the committee proceedings. That is why all of us, regardless of political party should support the call to repeal the eighth amendment.
For these reasons, I also fully support the committee's recommendations to allow for terminations when the mother's physical or mental health is at risk. In 2018, surely it is time for us to trust women. We have to face reality. Ireland is not an abortion-free country. Women in Ireland have abortions all the time. Each day, ten women travel for terminations. Some of them are probably boarding a plane this evening as we have this debate. The vast majority of these women receive no after care when they return home. We also know that 1,800 abortion pills were supplied to Irish women over the Internet by one provider alone in 2016. This is the reality right across our island. To put these figures into context, it is estimated that about 12% of Irish women of reproductive age have had an abortion. That means all of us, whether we are aware of it or not, know somebody who has had an abortion. These are the people the State has failed and continues to fail. There is a gross hypocrisy at the heart of the so-called pro-life campaign. As Professor Arulkumaran said, everybody is an abortionist. Some support legal abortion. Those who do not support legal abortion support illegal abortion. Irish women will continue to access abortion. I want their medical needs to be provided for in Ireland in our hospitals.
I will deal with the recommendation that the law should be amended to permit termination of pregnancy with no restriction as to reason with a gestational limit of 12 weeks. The Citizens' Assembly came to this conclusion because it could see no other way to assist women who had become pregnant as a result of rape or incest. After hearing the medical and legal evidence, our committee came to the same conclusion. The alternative would involve requiring a woman to provide some kind of proof or certification she had been raped. I cannot imagine how that could be an acceptable means of dealing with this issue. The 12-week issue also raises another fundamental question. If someone I know finds herself in the early weeks of pregnancy and passionately believes she is not ready or able to continue with the pregnancy, should any man or woman or indeed the State have the power to insist she must continue with that pregnancy until full term? Women must always have access to the best medical health care in a safe supporting environment.
The ancillary recommendations deserve careful consideration and support if we are ever to achieve a health service fit for our people and women in particular.I fear that these recommendations will be ignored. I want to highlight the huge inconsistencies in how sex education is delivered in this State and the need for progressive policy in this area, which is applied regardless of the so-called ethos of the schools. This issue brings up the glaring anomaly of a State that claims to be a republic but still allows religious control of the majority of our school system.
In 1987, Christy Moore wrote a powerful song called "The Other Side" which contains the lyric:
... men in black will claim a social order
Frightened women sail to the other side.
Thirty years on the only thing that has changed is that they are more likely to fly than to sail.
Regardless of one's views on this difficult issues, it is time for the Irish people to have their say on the matter. One would have to be 52 years old in order to have voted in the last referendum. This referendum will not be easy. Many challenging conversations will need to be had. It will take courage and real leadership. There is very little sign of this leadership among the Taoiseach's comments last week. I truly hope he does not falter in the same manner that Garret FitzGerald did in 1983, with a half-hearted support for the repeal campaign. The women of Ireland deserve better. They must not be failed again.
Like other speakers, I wish to say "Well done" to all the members of the committee, particularly to Senator Noone. We are immensely proud of her and how she conducted the whole process.
When we listen to debates on the issue of abortion we so often hear the voices of the zealots at either end of the spectrum, people who hold entrenched views and who believe that anyone who does not support their views is an enemy who must be shouted down. However, I am one of the many people who reside in the grey area between the two extremes. I consider myself to be both pro-life and pro-choice. I sometimes wrestle with the issues and my opinions may alter based on learning new facts or hearing new perspectives. This is not a sign of indecision, rather it is a sign that I want to make a mature and informed decision. I am willing to listen to others but I will make up my own mind.
I believe strongly in freedom of speech and I would fight for it but I also believe that this debate should not be confined to those who shout loudest or those with the most dogmatic positions, whichever side they are on. I believe that this position represents the vast majority of the population of this country. It is because I do not believe that I have all the answers and that I believe people should have the right to make up their own mind on this most sensitive issue that I have come to the position that I am supporting the repeal of the eighth amendment. Let the people decide for themselves. I do not believe that this makes me anti-life and I refuse to be categorised as such.
The eighth amendment was passed in 1983, as was mentioned, 35 years ago. That means that nobody currently under the age of 52 has had an opportunity to have their say on this issue. In those intervening 35 years, 165,000 Irish women have travelled abroad for a termination. That is twice the capacity of Croke Park. Regardless of the eighth amendment, 20 Irish women a day are travelling abroad for terminations or availing of a pill ordered online, which is taken illegally and unsafely.
As a modern secular republic, the time has come for us to be mature enough to take responsibility for the health and well-being of Irish women and girls. There are so many complex issues involved in this debate - threats to the life or health of a woman, rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities, crisis pregnancy and so many others - that I do not believe we can lay down a clear black and white dogmatic position to women. In the real world decisions on these issues should be made by a woman in conjunction with her doctor and her partner, and not written in the Constitution. That is why I have decided to support the removal of the eighth amendment. The responsibility then lies on us, in a mature and caring way, to legislate, but the content of that debate is for another day. Today I call on all public representatives in both Houses to exercise the ultimate in democracy and to allow the Irish people decide.
I thank the Minister of State for being here. It is quite hard to capture in words how proud I am to have been part of this committee. I owe that very much to my colleagues in the Civil Engagement group who stepped aside and did not contest our place on it and allowed me to have a voice in that room. I was not even born in 1983 so I definitely felt that I was the one in the group who had the least experience walking into the room. I thank them for their support. I also thank the Chair of the committee who was very just, fair and patient throughout the process. I thank her for the role she played at this historic time for women in Ireland.
The report speaks for itself. It is clear. The recommendations are clear, with good descriptions of the thought process taken by the committee members and the factors that led us to decide as we did. I hope that people take the time to read it. It is not as fully complete as it could be. There were issues that I pushed to be included that did not make it in but, for the most part, I am extraordinarily proud of the work we did and the report that was produced. I am thankful to the members who engaged in this process in an open and honest way, especially those who described the process as a journey. It was this journey that allowed real scientific and medical evidence to prevail while keeping the woman at the centre of the debate. Members challenged their long-held views and, in many cases, changed them. One of the most powerful things a public representative or anyone can do is to admit growth, to admit that maybe their previously expressed views were based on a lack of or incomplete information, and I would like to applaud them for that.
As we move forward from this report and towards a referendum, that educational process is one that needs to be replicated in communities across the country. I hope that politicians can go forward and become ambassadors for starting those conversations and informing people about the realities of the eighth amendment and what the criminalisation and illegality of abortion has meant for women in Ireland.
I may have been a strong supporter of repeal on the committee but it was not long ago that I went on a similar journey. It was only five short years ago and I remember having conversations with friends and other students in college where I expressed a lot of misinformed and incorrect views on abortion and the eighth amendment. I was challenged on those view and, as a result, I took the time to educate and empower myself and that has made all the difference. No matter what one's view on abortion is, one should be fully armed with the facts, with the statistics, with the expert testimony and testimony from women affected and be fully aware of the impact of the eighth amendment on reproductive rights, on female autonomy, on health care and on maternity because it may radically change how one feels. It also may not change, and that will be the case for some people, but it is the responsibility of every politician and every person who will vote in this referendum to undergo the same process of information-led reflection and decision making that has defined every step of the process that has resulted in us debating this report in the Oireachtas today.
Now that we have been through the committee process and hours of expert testimony from women, doctors, lawyers, health-care providers and international experts, the extensive debate on every aspect of the impact of the eighth amendment on every part of women's health care and their lives, I now believe that the eighth amendment is one of the primary barriers to the reproductive freedom and the enjoyment of true equality by women in Ireland. It is a blunt instrument in our Constitution that takes away the ability of women in this country to make fundamental decisions around their reproduction, maternity and their own lives. It is the lives of women that we are talking about. When one takes away the ability of a woman to decide if and when she wishes to have a child, one takes away her control over her own life.
It has gone far beyond its original intended purpose, namely, an ostensible constitutional ban on abortion and has affected every aspect of women's health care and their medical autonomy. While the eighth amendment affects every woman of childbearing age in this country, it disproportionately targets poorer women, migrant women and refugee women without the means or methods to travel, and places them in impossible situations, forced to choose between motherhood against their will or unsafe and illegal abortion procedures.
It is archaic and a relic of an Ireland that no longer exists, where women were mistreated, belittled and locked up if they violated a narrow set of dogmatic religious teachings of how women should behave and live their lives. It does not belong in the constitution of a modern, secular republic. It is morally wrong and it will probably be one of my proudest moments as a Member of the Oireachtas that I was able to vote in favour of recommending its repeal.I am proud of the contents of this report. It does a comprehensive job of covering many of the policy details that arise when legislating for abortion access. I draw particular attention to the ancillary recommendations which are, arguably, the most important part of the report as they relate to access to contraception, health care and sexual education, which every international expert said were the best methods of reducing abortion rates. However, I recognise that much of the political, media and public attention has focused on the recommendation of access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The committee's decision to recommend a 12-week limit was not plucked from the sky, it was the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly and it is also widely accepted as an international and Europe-wide standard. We decided that it was an appropriate response to the issues that arise in terminations in cases of rape and incest in terms of verifying sexual assault with survivors and unnecessarily re-traumatising them. It also matches the gestational limits in terms of the use of the abortion pill, as it is advised to use it in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
I was therefore struck by the comments made by An Taoiseach, but also echoed through many media outlets and politicians, at his post-Cabinet press conference last Wednesday that our recommendations may be a step too far. I do not think these recommendations are a step too far. Rather than trying to dismiss the results of two representative, accountable and democratic processes informed by expert evidence, we would be better off considering the extent to we have become desensitised to the impact of the eighth amendment and the horrific stories that come to light as a result. Each day in which we leave it in our Constitution is a step too far. I listened to many of the stories in the past few months presented in an art installation entitled "Not at Home" by a group called THEATREclub. I think of the woman who travelled to Leeds for an abortion denied her at home and who accidentally drank a cup of tea on the flight over. She could not be put under an anaesthetic as a result and because she could not afford to fly over on another date, had to undergo a surgical abortion with no anaesthetic that day. Her experience was a step too far. The bags of some women were searched in the airport, and their bloody clothes and underwear were on display for airport staff. That is a step too far. The loss of dignity for those grieving mothers who had to travel after major surgery being exposed in a public place like that is a step too far. Women having to sit in cinemas in Liverpool after abortion procedures, where they would be warm and somewhat comfortable, being in public view if they started haemorrhaging is a step too far. It is a step too far for families who terminated in cases of a fatal foetal abnormality and had the bodies of their babies sent to them as if they were an Amazon delivery. It is a step too far that women who were raped and forced to continue the pregnancy because they could not afford to travel and because Irish law did not deem them worthy of access to a termination. It is a step too far that women who were forced to give birth against their will because they were either too poor to pay for flights or because they were a migrant and had no passport. It is a step too far when public representatives put out blatantly false and scaremongering information that abortion access on request up to 12 weeks will increase terminations in cases of Down's syndrome. Having to even set foot in an airport and travel abroad to access health care, the whole 134-mile trip to Liverpool, is a step too far. Let us not make the mistake of standing still; instead let us take a step forward, not a step too far.
I will not accept that these recommendations are too radical when the alternative is the status quo, which sees stories like these come about every single day and where women are forced to take their lives in their own hands to travel to another jurisdiction because some politicians in this country are too pious and sanctimonious to accept that whether they like it or not, women need and will always need access to abortion. Politicians who say they cannot accept this report may feel they are taking a brave stand based on a moral and principled opposition to abortion but their position will not stop abortion. It will simply say to women in this country that those politicians' personal beliefs interfere too much to give them access to what they need and good luck on the flight to the UK because they will need it. Those politicians may be able to claim that their conscience is clear, that they did not vote to make abortion legal in Ireland but they did, they just required that it happen illegally and unsafely.
This report is not a step too far. It is a step in the right direction, towards giving women in Ireland control over their reproductive health, their bodies and their lives and will hopefully go some way to make amends for the historical treatment of women by this State. We may have been able to convince ourselves that the eighth amendment stopped abortion in Ireland but this report shows it did not. Women simply travelled abroad to access what was not legal here or they performed illegal abortions at home, on their own and without medical supervision.
Let us not make the mistake of collectively putting our heads in the sand again, as has been the case with this issue for the past 35 years. Let us do right by Irish women and accept the decision of the Citizens' Assembly and the Oireachtas committee, repeal the eighth amendment and give women choice and control over their lives.
I welcome the Minister to the House and the opportunity to have this historic debate. I commend the members of the committee. I and the Labour Party fully support their recommendations. We have a long record of standing for repeal of the eighth amendment. The party has a record of social change issues on divorce, contraception, marriage equality and we stand by the committee's recommendations in full, including the recommendation for legal abortion with no restriction as to reason up to 12 weeks if the amendment is to be repealed. I commend Senator Ruane and the other members of the committee and Senator Noone on her excellent chairing of the committee. In particular I commend Deputy Jan O'Sullivan of the Labour Party, who put forward the recommendation for repeal simpliciter. I also commend the Citizens' Assembly.
Like other speakers, I am too young to have voted on the amendment in 1983 but it has cast a blight, a shadow and indeed a chill over my generation of women. I now have daughters growing up under its shadow. I felt its chill particularly strongly as a student in 1989 when I was threatened with imprisonment by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, SPUC, and declared bankrupt in court because I and my fellow student officers were giving women in crisis pregnancies information on where to obtain abortions. The student movement has had a proud record of campaigning for repeal since that date. During the decades since we have seen tragic cases such as the X case, Savita's case and others but we have not been able to legislate. As legislators we have not been able to take on our responsibility to women who have been so badly and grievously affected over so many years because of the eighth amendment. It has blocked us from legislating in cases of rape, incest, risks to women's health or fatal foetal abnormality. The only legislation we could pass in 2013 was accused of potentially having a floodgate effect. Only 77 women have had their lives saved under that legislation since it was passed, hardly a floodgate effect. We have seen a strong movement for repeal because of the recognition that we have abdicated our responsibility as legislators because of the eighth amendment. The committee's report marks a refreshing change in approach by legislators, a confronting of reality.
One key reason the committee gave for recommending repeal is health, because the eighth amendment has had a detrimental impact on the provision of services to pregnant women, particularly in respect of the timing of critical decision-making in saving a woman's life. The preponderance of medical opinion before the committee was in favour of repeal. This evidence came from the Irish College of General Practitioners and the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, telling of front-line experiences of being unable to intervene to save a woman's life because of a foetal heartbeat. These sorts of experiences shaped a medical consensus that the eighth amendment is the central barrier to the provision of best-practice reproductive health care in Ireland. There was also a medical consensus that the criminalisation of women, the 14-year sanction, is overly restrictive and creates a chill factor for doctors in seeking to provide high-standard health care.
The committee also recognised the practical reality that thousands of women are accessing abortion every year in England. We know that 3,265 women gave Irish addresses in British abortion clinics in 2016. We know also that thousands more are taking abortion pills illegally in Ireland, 1,748 Irish residents contacted one provider, Women on Waves, in 2016. Since 1983 more than 160,000 women have made the journey for abortion abroad. The eighth amendment has not prevented abortion, it has merely compounded the crisis of a woman's pregnancy by forcing her to travel or face the threat of prosecution. It is a class issue because women who can afford to travel have less difficulty in doing so. That is why the committee says it was persuaded to change the law, even those who did not come to the committee with a pro-choice perspective at the beginning. They also found persuasive the evidence from international experts that abortion rates decrease after access is legalised because post-abortion contraception and other services may be provided. That is part of the ancillary recommendations.
The committee recommended a repeal referendum. That is crucial. It rejected the idea that any replacement text be inserted because it could not recommend removal of the important supervisory jurisdiction of the courts and felt a replacement text would have too profound an effect on the doctrine of separation of powers.This view was shared by a group of prominent and practising barristers who wrote toThe Irish Times in October 2017, saying it would be dangerous to put a replacement text into the Constitution and that it would carry a high risk of unforeseen consequences.
Indeed, back in 1983, Peter Sutherland and Mary Robinson, among others, warned of the dangers of any text in the Constitution. The then Senator Mary Robinson, speaking in the Seanad in May 1983, said that the wording was ambiguous and unsatisfactory and would create uncertainty. The Constitution is no place to regulate abortion. We must leave it to women and their doctors and we must legislate.
Let me put the case strongly for holding the referendum in May. No person aged under 50 years has had the chance to vote on this issue. A June date, as has been suggested, would rule out third level students, parents of secondary school students and others. We need to ensure a maximum turnout in order to end this chill and repeal the eighth amendment for the sake of our daughters and their generation.
I am an Irishman, the son of a woman who was forced to leave the Civil Service when she got married, a grandson of women who were born with no right to vote, and the brother of a woman who was born in the year the eighth amendment was passed when, as Ms Emily O'Reilly put it, the "Masterminds of the Right" got their way. It was the year Ms Sheila Hodgers died, having been denied treatment for her cancer while she was pregnant.
I am an Irishman. I live in a city dotted with physical reminders of Magdalen laundries, in a country with deep secrets of baby plots, mother and baby homes, sexual abuse and violence, where older women bear the mental and physical scars of churching and symphysiotomy.
I am an Irishman. Television images of my childhood were of violence, emigration, unemployment and occasionally of women who should not be believed. It was not that simple in the land of the whispering corners. It was really the fault of Ms Joanne Hayes, Ann Lovett and Ms Annie Murphy. It was really the fault of the girl in the X case and the law was there to prove it.
I am an Irishman. I stand in a Parliament, still overwhelmingly male, led by a Government which is overwhelmingly male and reported on by a media that is overwhelmingly male, who say there are two extremes to this debate on the eighth amendment. There are not two extremes to this debate,. There is only one, and that is the extreme that demands of all women in every circumstance to be forced always to take a certain course of action. The other side, my side, does not demand that of any women.
I stand in a Parliament dominated by parties who speak of republicanism, who glorify post colonial victimhood, but who cannot genuinely appreciate that by ourselves alone we have perpetuated this injustice in contradiction of the human rights norm of every western democracy.
I am an Irishman. I will never be told by a doctor, nurse, or a medical professional that protecting my life or my health is constitutionally complex or legally uncertain. I will never have to employ legal representation from a hospital bed and no one will ever equate my life or health to the unborn because I am an Irishman.
I know that fundamentally this debate centres on a distrust of women, but I cannot fathom the intense loneliness and abandonment that thousands of women have felt over the years as they wait at airport departure gates or ferry terminals to travel abroad to terminate their pregnancies. Many have remained silent because of the whispering corners.
I am an Irishman, so I struggle to imagine the anguish and torture in a young woman's mind as she handles an abortion pill she ordered online as she sits alone in her room, consumed with the reality that she cannot tell anyone, not a friend, a doctor, not even a soulmate. These women are of Ireland, as much as our music, sport and dance. They are to be trusted to be empowered. The Constitution must protect them in every single way as much as it protects Irishmen.
In recent years, I have heard these names haunt the corridors of this building: Ms Savita Halappanavar, Ms Louise O'Keeffe, Ms Máiría Cahill, Ms A, Ms B, Ms C, Ms D, Ms Y, Ms Amanda Mellet and Ms Siobhan Whelan.
I am an Irishman and there is much to be ashamed of and much to be proud of, because I did not always subscribe to this point of view. It has been the inspirational women in my life and in my party, the Labour Party, who have helped to bring me to this compassionate position. They have reminded me that there were always voices who would not be silenced - from Ms Evelyn Owens to Máirín de Burca, Mary Robinson to Senator Ivana Bacik, women who stood for and stand for a different Ireland.
I am an Irishman, and I stand in awe of the mná who will not be silenced anymore. They speak through the National Women's Council, Terminations for Medical Reasons, Amnesty International, and through repeal groups in every corner of this country. Individuals, such as Ms Tara Flynn and Róisín Ingle, have placed themselves at the centre of a whirlwind of abuse because they are not going to take it anymore. Women contact politicians such as me in confidence about their stories.
I am an Irishman and I want a Constitution that liberates, not imprisons; a society that inspires compassion, not blame; and a State that lives up to the republican gospel of the Proclamation that speaks to Irish men and Irish women and puts to rest finally this dangerous and oppressive amendment.
I commend the joint committee members on the great work they have done on a very difficult and divisive issue. I commend the chairperson, who is a Seanad colleague. I understand just how divisive is this issue. We had the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in 2013 and I spoke to every single member of the Fine Gael Party who was in the Oireachtas at that time, and it was a very difficult time for people. This issue is very complex and evokes strong emotions.
I have always felt as a doctor that I had no right to impose my moral view on my patients. I have always supported my patient in her decision. The reality of general practice is that one faces a whole range of issues. I remember one surgery, even though it was a long time ago, where on the same evening I met the mother of a 13 year old girl who was having abdominal pains. When I inquired as to whether her periods had started, I was scathingly rebuked by the mother for speaking like that in front of a child. The next patient to come in was a woman in her late 30s, the mother of nine children and pregnant again. She was in no way emotionally or physically able to go through with that pregnancy. That is the diversity and the reality that faces us.
During the time of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, I also met women who had faced a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormalities and had to travel to England to have terminations. Their stories of being forced back into this country like criminals with their child's remains in a shoe box were, to say the least, harrowing and made me, like others, ashamed to be Irish, let alone an Irishman.
There are many difficulties. Many people have been thinking about this and have in their minds been expecting that we would correct the issue around fatal foetal abnormalities, and deal with both rape and incest as well. It came as a bit of surprise to many when the committee recommended that one could have a termination without restriction up to 12 weeks gestation. If people read the report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment they will understand the rationale behind it. Certainly some of the statistics given might be slightly different but they are in the same range, where one source states that in one year some 1,800 women availed of an abortifacient pill across the Internet. I have been advising people forever not to buy anything on the Internet because one cannot be sure of what one is getting. These women put themselves at risk doubly because, first, they do not know what they are getting is the real thing, and, second, pills taken unsupervised may have complications and result in serious bleeding. We know from the experts that the chilling effect of the law, making this illegal, can prevent and delay women from seeking medical advice, because they are worried that somebody might report them. I do not know any general practitioner who would do so, but there may be some. Other people who work in general practice might have different views and I know for sure in the past we had issues such as that with some of the maternity hospitals.When we look at the statistics we can see there are at least 1,800 women using this pill and more than 3,500 women going to England to terminate their pregnancies. We cannot keep ignoring its problem and pretending it does not exist. We cannot keep sweeping it under the carpet. I hope that everybody will read the report. I hope we can have a reasonable and reasoned debate, here in the Houses, on the airwaves and in our communities, which will - as other Senators have already said and with which I firmly agree - respect everybody's views. I know there are people who will read the report and it will not change their view one iota. I respect that, but one should at least read the report and draw one's own conclusions.
As a final point, I appeal to people to take off the theological, philosophical and ideological hat. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense. I appeal to them to leave that to one side and to make the scenario real, to bring it home to their own door; to their sister, daughter, partner, granddaughter, niece or very best friend. Does anyone want these women to have to leave this country at a time when they are most vulnerable and going through the greatest of emotional traumas, and to be without that circle of support from family and friends that is so important? I certainly do not. I hope we can have a reasoned debate and that we can remove this amendment from the Constitution. I am aware there may be other ramifications. I believe it is critical to have the legislation available to us before people make the decision. On this occasion so far, the debate has been reasonable and if we can maintain a reasoned and respectful conversation then the country can only benefit from that, whatever the result of the referendum. I have made it very clear, however, that I support the repeal of the eighth amendment.
As other Senators have done, I wish to pay tribute to the committee members, including the Members of this House, and especially Senator Noone who chaired the committee. I have great admiration and respect for Senator Noone and all the committee members for putting together the committee's report. It was an important task, following on from the report of the Citizens' Assembly. I commend the committee. It has done the State some service.
I support the recommendations of the committee. I look forward to a referendum date being set by the Taoiseach. It is clear that the eighth amendment is not working for women. Irish abortions happen every day. Some 4,000 women travel to the UK each year to acquire a termination. Many more women are buying dangerous abortion pills online and are taking them without medical supervision.
I have spoken with women who have travelled, in already traumatic circumstances, on flights full of stag parties and business people on their way to meetings. These women sat in blood soaked clothes on the flight home. Once they arrived back in Ireland they had to travel for hours on buses and trains to get to their homes in other parts of the country.
I have spoken with women who have purchased abortion pills on the Internet and were terrified that if something went wrong, they would have no one to turn to for help. This is not good enough. We do not need another woman to bleed to death in a grotto like Ann Lovett, or in a bedroom or bathroom because our society is not able to face up to the reality of crisis pregnancies.
Nobody wants to have a termination, but for some women it is necessary. We need to be compassionate and we need to trust women to know their own minds. We need to stop brushing things under the carpet. Ireland is an independent Republic and we need to stop relying on other countries to provide health care to women from Ireland. It is clear from the evidence from medical experts that the eighth amendment acts as a barrier to the best medical care and outcomes for women. We all know women who have had a termination. The eighth amendment does not deter women from seeking abortions; they will continue to travel and endure poor quality health care, financial strain, anxiety, stigma and separation from support at a time when they need it most. I appeal to colleagues in this House and in the Dáil to support the recommendations in the report and to allow the people to have their say.
I congratulate all our colleagues who sat on the committee. I thank them for all their time and dedication to the committee by listening and contributing to the work of the committee. I particularly thank Senator Noone, who maintained her impartiality. She was fair to participants, she was dedicated and she was dignified at all times while chairing the committee.
All life is precious, including that of the unborn and that of the mother. The arrival of a child into every family is a blessing and something to be cherished. Irish mothers have a long track record of caring for their children, which is evident everywhere we look. The health and well-being of the mother and the health care they receive is of course of paramount concern to us all and to mothers who are contemplating future motherhood.
The issue, the subject matter of the committee, is a highly emotive and complex matter. Within many families there is a divergence of opinion. Ultimately however, the issue of the eighth amendment has cast doubt over those people it affects, mainly the health of women and girls, and this needs to be resolved. According to the facts, we know that crisis pregnancy is not going away whether we change the law or not. We can reduce the incidence of crisis pregnancies by implementing some of the ancillary recommendations of the report including improving sexual health and relationship education, introducing free and accessible contraception, improving counselling and improving in general women's health care. This is something we have failed at in the past and continue to fail with. Without sounding glib, if men needed a particular reproductive care such as that needed by women, we would probably see a state-of-the-art hospital akin to the Aviva Stadium. We do not see anything of the sort for women. Even today, women are treated in run-down archaic hospitals in this city. Thankfully, however, we have the assistance of medical professionals who give a top-class service despite the inadequate conditions.
We know that in 2016, 3,265 women gave Irish addresses to hospitals in England and Wales when accessing abortions there. The numbers of women from Ireland obtaining abortions in those jurisdictions could be even higher if they have been giving UK addresses. Ultimately, and most harrowingly, those who receive abortions in the UK do not receive the best practice in relation to medical care, counselling and access to contraception that they deserve. We also know that more than 1,500 women in Ireland each year access the abortion pill online without any medical supervision. They have had harrowing experiences. Many woman who have obtained the abortion bill online are afraid to access medical care because of the criminal sanctions. The evidence given to the committee by two current and former masters of maternity hospitals was ad idemin respect of the eighth amendment. Those experts stated that the eighth amendment is the central barrier to the provision of best practice abortion and maternity care in Ireland and that it should be removed. The medical profession, including the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, has also supported these recommendations.
The current law, which includes criminal provisions, prevents the doctors in Ireland from giving women the very best medical care that they deserve. Surely this is enough. During the debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, many people predicted the opening of a flood gate for abortions in Ireland. This was not the case. I understand that less than three dozen abortions were performed under the legislation.
Many Irish women want to become mothers and Irish mothers have a clear, fantastic track record of looking after their children very dearly. It is time for the State to allow Irish women themselves make decisions in respect of their bodies. I believe it is time to trust Irish women and give them an opportunity to vote on the eighth amendment. The evidence from the medics is crystal clear and I do not believe we can continue with this cruel treatment of Irish women.
I wish a happy new year to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and to all the Members of the House.
I warmly and wholeheartedly endorse the committee's report and all the recommendations it contains. Sadly, crisis pregnancies are an everyday reality for women in Ireland. It is something we have to face up to. So far the debate in the Houses has been characterised by kindness, care and compassion. I hope this continues in the weeks and months ahead. Speaking about the deep divide that has existed between the different positions people hold dearly and sincerely on this most sensitive of matters, the late Nuala O'Faolain once insightfully wrote that there would be no abortion in any of our utopias. With that unifying thought in mind, it is important to remember that there are practical things we can, should and must do to prevent crisis pregnancies ever happening in the first place.I particularly welcome the committee report's ancillary recommendations, which call for a full and frank review of sex education, free contraception for all and improved counselling for pregnant women. It is not widely known, for example, that vasectomies cost €400, putting them beyond the reach of many families. These procedures, as well as contraception, must be free if we are to prevent crisis pregnancies. I am also glad to see that the committee has called for the decriminalisation of abortion. It is not okay that women in Ireland today who end a pregnancy that was a result of rape face a longer prison sentence than the men who rape them.
Implementing the ancillary recommendations in full will go some way to reducing the number of crisis pregnancies and the number of women seeking abortion in Ireland. However, there will always be women who require abortion services for one reason or another. I therefore welcome the recommendation by the committee that Article 40.3.3° be simply repealed in full. The Constitution was never the right place to regulate and control women's unique ability to reproduce. We should never have been pitted legally against our own bodies. Our beautiful fertility should be a cause for celebration, a blessing, not a source of fear, anxiety or even death, or a locus of intense State control, intrusion and stigma for women. We were powerfully and painfully reminded about that control, intrusion and stigma again yesterday by Joanne Hayes. I lived in Tralee during the tribunal of inquiry into the Garda's investigation of what became known as the Kerry babies case. The inquiry into the actions of the Garda became an inquiry into Joanne herself, the woman who had children outside wedlock. It was an early expression of an oppressive State in operation against women within the year the eighth amendment was made to the Constitution.
It is telling that no international human rights treaty recognises the rights of the unborn as equal to those of the mother. Furthermore, the eighth amendment does not stop Irish women having abortions. It stops Irish women having legal abortions in Ireland. This is backed up by evidence from the Guttmacher Institute, which set out that the rate of abortion in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws is roughly comparable with that in countries with more liberal frameworks; there is no evidence that laws influence the numbers of abortions or eliminate them. Between 1970 and 2016, at least 184,000 Irish women have travelled to England and Wales to access abortion in a clinic. These women are politicians, doctors, teachers, nurses, waitresses, factory workers and full-time carers. They are our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends and work colleagues. They are people we know, people we love and women we let down.
I am glad that the committee has recommended that the termination of pregnancy should be lawful where the life or health, mental or physical, of the mother is at risk and that gestational limits should be guided by the best available medical evidence. This call that no distinction should be drawn between the physical and mental health of women was echoed by 72% of the Citizens' Assembly. I am relieved to see that the committee's report is very clear on the issue of disability. As many Members will be aware, I worked for many years in the disability sector as chief executive of an organisation that provided supports to people with intellectual disabilities in Cork. Supporting people with disabilities to live life to the full is something that I care about deeply. It is a red herring and a distraction to say, as some might, that a repeal of the eighth amendment will allow abortion on the grounds of disability. The committee's report is crystal clear in this regard and states "The Committee recommends that the law should not provide for the termination of pregnancy on the ground that the unborn child has a significant foetal abnormality where such abnormality is not likely to result in death before or shortly after birth", while allowing for cases where the unborn will sadly not survive. I believe this is the right approach. We need to deal with what happens where there is foetal abnormality with the utmost care and compassion. These are tragic cases and the parents deserve our support.
I also welcome that the committee's report recommends the law be amended to allow termination of pregnancy, with no restriction as to reason, in a GP-led service up to 12 weeks. Women have abortions for lots of reasons, sometimes for more than one. Members heard during the debates on the Domestic Violence Bill of the scale of domestic abuse in Ireland. We know that thousands of women live in consistent poverty. We know too that many women are raped or abused. We know that tragically many pregnancies do not develop as planned. We know too that many women throughout the country face difficult daily lives. All of these horrific hardships provide reasons why someone might want to end a pregnancy early on. Open access up to 12 weeks allows the 17 year-old rape survivor to end the pregnancy without having to recount the horror that she endured. Open access up to 12 weeks allows that the pregnancy conceived by incest can end with care and compassion. Open access up to 12 weeks allows the woman whose foetus has a fatal abnormality to access the services she needs close to home. Had open access to abortion existed, might Ann Lovett have died alone in that cold, dark, grotto in 1984? Would Savita Halappanavar still be alive? Would the beaten-down mother of seven have gone ahead with that eighth or ninth pregnancy? Our ban on abortion has a cruel legacy. It has left some women damaged. It has left those forced to travel feeling desperate and devastated. It has left other women dead.
I pay tribute to the members of the committee who worked incredibly hard on a sensitive and difficult matter over a long number of months. I followed the proceedings very closely and saw at first hand the effort and energy the members put in. In particular, I pay tribute to Senator Noone, who was a formidable and very fair Chair. I also pay tribute to Senator Ruane from my own group. She showed her knowledge, her passion and her grit on this issue and ensured that our group was kept informed and involved throughout. There were deeply held and divided opinions on the committee and I pay tribute to the members who went into the committee room with an open mind, who were willing to listen to the arguments being presented and who were willing to change what might have been long-held beliefs. These people thought long and hard and gave consideration to the difficult journeys endured by many women and decided that as a country, we cannot allow this for the next generation. From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of women up and down the country, I thank them.
My engagement with this issue started in 1983, aged 21, when I voted against the eighth amendment to the Constitution. At the time, a crisis pregnancy was a real possibility for me. Access to contraception in Cork was a real challenge. Being spotted coming out of the clinic on Tuckey Street with pills or condoms, if one was lucky enough to get them, was not what one wanted one's neighbours to see. I was fortunate my many scares did not result in a pregnancy. I still remember the relief when my late period arrived. With no job and few prospects, I was not economically - and certainly not psychologically - ready for motherhood. Friends and acquaintances in the same situation were not so lucky. Some took a difficult decision and faced the lonely journey to London. Some went with their boyfriends. Others travelled alone, coming home to families that did not know or would not understand. They may still not know. When I emigrated to London, my friends and I joined the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group of which my colleague, Senator Bacik, was also a member. It was a group set up to support Irish women who travelled to the UK for an abortion. We took reversed phone calls from women calling from pay phones in deepest rural Ireland. We met women at train stations. Sometimes it was their first time out of the country. We were a friendly face and a familiar accent for women in a big and strange city, making a tough choice.
At the time most people in Ireland did not realise what a crisis pregnancy meant for women. Now 56, the fear of a crisis pregnancy no longer looms large in my life. In the 35 years that have passed since the eighth amendment was approved, the situation has not improved much. Women still are not getting the support they need for the choices they make. Contraception is still not freely available. Sex education in schools is being curtailed by religious ethos. We still turn a blind eye to the estimated 4,000 women who travel for an abortion each year. We make criminals of the women who buy abortion pills online. We put their health at risk by denying them access to the medical supervision they need. We threaten doctors and others with 14 years in prison if they dare to help. Ignoring or avoiding the issue does not make crisis pregnancies go away. I would be so proud to see us finally face up to the full realities of crisis pregnancies for all our daughters. Let us give them the power, privacy and proper health care they need. This includes good sex education, free contraception and access to safe, legal abortion in Ireland.
I am encouraged that the committee's report has echoed the calls of the Citizens' Assembly and the thousands of us who marched for repeal last September. Collectively, here in this House, in radio stations and at dinner tables up and down the country, we must now have the courage to have thoughtful reflections about this public issue that is ultimately a very private matter.
Motherhood, when it came, freely chosen by me, has been the very best role I have ever had, by far. My daughter is here tonight. It has been exhilarating, exhausting, exciting and joyous. My daughter and my son have given me so many challenges, as well as learning and love. When I think of my lovely daughter, now a young woman, I see in her the attributes of someone who would be a wonderful mother, if that is what she chooses when the time is right for her, as it was for me when I had her; a wanted child.I also think of my niece and all my daughter's friends and all the young women I worked beside in September. What I want for them, and I hope this can be supported, is an Ireland where women, including women of childbearing age, are treated with respect, their health, bodily autonomy and choices are respected and protected, including the gift of motherhood if that is right for them.
Repealing the eighth amendment to the Constitution is a start to making Ireland that kind of country for women a reality; a reality denied to so many of us for so long.
The question before us is not about whether we think abortion is right or wrong. The question is whether that decision should be left up to the woman with the advice and support of her doctor to hand. I truly believe it should. I hope that the majority in this House will join with me to allow a referendum for the people to decide. The time has come.
I commend Senator Kelleher for a very personal speech and join with other speakers in commending and congratulating our colleague and friend, Senator Noone, on her very fine chairing of the committee.
I begin by wanting to end the narrative that the process adopted by the committee was wrong. The process was very fair, balanced and came up with a report that we can all be justifiably proud of. Those who served on the committee did so with extreme endeavour, professionalism and courtesy. I want to commend all members of the committee for their work.
This is an important debate. In the annals of the history of our country we have had momentous occasions and debates in this House, in the Dáil, and in Irish society. However, as Senator Kelleher said, 35 years on from the last referendum on the eighth amendment, we are now on the precipice of having another referendum. It is cliched to say that this is a sensitive and complex matter, but it is. It divides households, communities, political parties and friendships. It should not do so. We need to have a debate that is respectful, tolerant and that understands the intricacies of this matter and of this debate. I hope that we can have that debate.
I speak as somebody whose life has changed in many different directions and whose view on this matter has evolved. In 1984, I was a seminarian in Maynooth College with a very different world view than I have today. As a pro-life person, I believe that all life is precious. Like Senator McFadden, I want to see this Article repealed and changed. My views have evolved through listening, engagement, debate and understanding life and what life brings forward.
I had the privilege and the pleasure of being Chairman of an Oireachtas committee which sat in the Seanad Chamber for six days on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. I was also a member of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It taught me many different things. One of the things I really want to express in this House is that vitriol, name calling, protestation in person or online has no place in this debate. None of us should stand up for that. Constitutional change is required. I am happy to support repeal of the eighth amendment. I was 2 lbs when I was born prematurely in 1967. Life to me is precious. Equally, the life of my mother and of any mother is as precious. From debating, reading and listening, this is about the right of a mother, it is about the health of a woman and it is about reproductive health.
On hearing of the death of Peter Sutherland, I went back and read his opinion published, uniquely, by Government at the time. I read it and I would appeal to all people, all citizens of our Republic, to read with care what he said. He spoke about ambiguity and about an unsatisfactory outcome which would lead to confusion and uncertainty. How right he was. What we require now and what is needed in this debate and in the referendum to come is, to paraphrase the Minister, Deputy Harris, one where we have compassion, empathy, care and understanding and where we have certainty given. That is why the report is not just about a call for a referendum, it is about the ancillary recommendations about maternal care and public health care for women and for children. That is equally as important as the referendum to come. I ask all Members to read the ancillary recommendations.
No longer is an Irish problem one that we can brush under the carpet. The solution that we had was to export, let the woman travel but say nothing and pretend it does not exist. In the modern world that we all live in, we have the abortion pill. The tenable situation and solution is no longer tenable. We cannot allow women to travel unsupported and without help. As Senator Reilly said, we cannot allow women to continue taking unregulated abortion pills illegally. To ignore the facts of life today will continue the mistreatment of women by us in Irish society. We can no longer allow that to happen. As we speak this evening, delivered by An Post or by a courier, there are women taking an abortion pill in the privacy of their own home, in a public restroom or wherever. We do not know the outcome. We do not know what is going to happen the following day. Are we seriously going to say that we are going to allow our sisters, our aunts, our work colleagues and our friends to travel anonymously and to go through an experience, as Members have said here, without support and without help? Is that the modern day Irish solution that we are going to stand up for and support? I really hope not.
That is why this debate is so important. Senator Ó Ríordáin, in his fine speech, spoke about being an Irish man. I speak of being an Irish man in an Irish society that stands for a proclamation of treating all of our people equally, and that includes mná na hÉireann, the women of our country. Irrespective of our viewpoint on the right to life or on abortion, this is not about a quip on a poster or about a debate. This is about the treatment of our citizens, of our women. It is time that we allowed our citizens to make their decision. They will vote. Irish people will make that decision in a referendum. That is why it is important that we have a debate based on facts and information. The debate should not be based on spin and a campaign driven by extremes on both side, but by the middle, where we can base it upon the evidence given. That is why the committee made decisions that perhaps did not go as far as some people would want. That is why the committee disagreed with the Citizens' Assembly on the socio-economic grounds and disability. That is the mark of a committee, of a parliament and of a democracy where we can disagree.
From having the privilege of chairing the joint committee dealing with the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, from speaking to medical professionals and from getting to know them, our doctors want certainty. Our women deserve certainty. Let us make it quite clear. As Senator Bacik said in her remarks referring to the figures following the passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, the sky did not go berserk with women presenting and getting permission. It was the opposite in fact. I trust Irish women. That is even more the case since the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.
Senator Noone as a parliamentarian deserves immense praise for the way she handled the committee.The committee sat from June to December. It held numerous meetings with countless witnesses, some of whom were, perhaps, liberal. I refer Senators to the testimonies in the report.
We heard powerful testimonies. We did not hear bias; we heard the truth. Expert witnesses from the legal and medical professions laid before us the realities of what is in our Constitution. As politicians and as people, we have buried our heads for far too long. I do not agree with abortion but it is happening every day. Women are travelling. These are not women without names. Many of them come from our communities or the places in which we were born, they are members of our families and they are from all walks of life. I can no longer stand over a situation whereby women must travel to access abortion or are obliged to access abortion pills online.
I hope that we can have a mature, reasonable debate on this issue. We can agree to disagree. The people will decide.
As a new generation of politicians in this House, we have done the State some service up to now. Let us continue to do so, through the leadership of the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, the Ministers of State, Deputies Jim Daly and Finian McGrath. Let us lead. Let us have a debate and allow our citizens to decide. Let us respect that process.
I was in the Dáil earlier for some of the debate on this issue, which was particularly interesting and respectful and which took into consideration other people's views. Likewise, the debate here has been very respectful.
The Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution was established by the Oireachtas. It is important to make that point because we are Members of the Oireachtas, which is charged with responsibility in terms of government. All 22 members of the committee brought their different life experiences and traditions to the debate on the eighth amendment. That reflected the nature of people. There was a certain amount of friction and tension during the committee's meetings but that was good. It happens during every sitting of this House. It is important to acknowledge that the committee discussed the issues in good faith and produced a strong report and recommendations but that not everyone may agree with them.
I have received a substantial amount of correspondence on this issue - as I am sure everyone else has too - in the form of emails and handwritten letters. Some of them are pretty nasty but they reflect people's views. This is an emotive issue. People become frustrated and angry, and they sometimes think they are not being listened to. I have no difficulty with people of different traditions, cultures, backgrounds, churches, beliefs or non-beliefs expressing their views. We live in a republic. We value diversity and different opinions even if they are in some way in conflict with our own opinion. That is good. The people are sovereign. We have a Constitution. We can debate this issue for as long as we want. I support the holding of a referendum. I am unequivocal on that and I do not need to ring The Irish Timesto inform it of my view because I am happy to stand in this Parliament and say what I believe. It is right and proper that people be afforded their rights. As a democracy, we have the secrecy of the ballot box whereby people go polling stations to register their decisions. There are a number of elements and aspects to the referendum process. Once it has been agreed to hold a referendum we must move quickly to establish the Referendum Commission. Previous commissions have done really good work in setting out, in an impartial way, the facts and the details, which will be important in the context of the referendum on this issue. Politicians and other interested groups will state their views and seek to make their case, with which I also do not have any difficulty, but the people need to be assured that, as part of the process, there will be an independent commission which will ensure that impartial information is delivered to people's homes.
I acknowledge the very difficult task undertaken by the Chairman of the joint committee, Senator Catherine Noone. Regardless of one's views on this issue, she chaired the committee well. I took the time to watch many of the debates. The Senator was calm, cool and independent and that was important. I also attended the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, BIPA, hearings on this issue in the House Commons. We heard personal stories from those on all sides of the debate. That was an interesting process, which I know fed into the work of the committee here. Senator Noone took the time to listen to everybody. I was taken by that. Regardless of our views - we all have individual views - it is the people who will decide. It is important to make that point.
I have some questions for the Minister of State which I hope he will take note of so that he can reply to them. However, before doing so, I would like to make the point that we need leadership from Government. The Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, is entitled to change his mind. I accept that people often change their minds following extensive debate. However, the Government made a decision in principle to hold a referendum. We need clarity around whether the Government collectively is going to support the wording of the referendum. We are not privy to what the Attorney General has told Government. We need to know if it is proposed to repeal the eighth amendment or to repeal and substitute it with another set of words. The Cabinet has collective responsibility for decisions. We are hearing different views from Cabinet Ministers. I respect they are all entitled to have different views but at some point leadership from the Government will be required in the context of what it is proposed to do. That needs to be said.
I will now put my questions to the Minister of State. Is it the Government's intention to hold a referendum to repeal or replace the eighth amendment? We need an answer to that question, although I am not suggesting that it should come from the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. When the Minister, Deputy Harris, comes to the House later, perhaps he will answer it. Has the Government received legal advice from the Attorney General on whether Article 40.3.3oof the Constitution, in which the eight amendment is incorporated, should be repealed or replaced with an article specifically empowering the Oireachtas to legislate on the matter? Has work commenced on the drafting of a referendum Bill? If so, where does it stand? Does it have the official authority of Cabinet, which is required? We need to know that. If a Bill is being drafted, when will the Government bring it before the Dáil and the Seanad? Has work commenced on the drafting of a specific referendum question that the Government might envisage putting to the people? These are important questions.
There comes a time when Government must lead. Regardless of what any of us think of the views of the Government, it is incumbent on the latter to set out its stall. I understand that will happen but I believe it needs to happen soon because people want direction and leadership. As I said previously, the people will have their say. It is important that we respect and give people on all sides of the debate the space to have their views heard. I reiterate that it is important that the Referendum Commission, which will be independent, be established. I accept that the latter will not happen soon but we should at least be talking about that at this point. Like me, the people want to know what Government proposes to do and not about 12 weeks being a problem for some but not for others. The Taoiseach stated that he did not believe that the proposal relating to 12 weeks was a runner but he has since changed his mind which he is entitled to do. I have read a number of commentaries on this issue in The Irish Times.Everyone is entitled to change and everyone is entitled to a view, but the Taoiseach is the Taoiseach and the Government is the Government. We need leadership from them.
I want to take us back to the Ireland of the 1980s. I was quite a young adult then and obviously a young female. It was a dismissive society with rules legislating for the very patriarchal manner in which it was run. Women and girls were controlled by the State and the church. We were intimidated and bullied. The State reigned over half its population. On the surface, it was venerating us as mothers, madonnas or maidens dancing at the crossroads, but when we dared to differ in opinion or make demands, we became whores. Just ask Joanne Hayes. It was in this societal context - the context of the Magdalen laundries, the Tuam babies sites, the forced adoptions and the shame - that the eight amendment came into being, with 66% of the population voting in favour of it. I was not among that 66%.
As that young girl and as a young republican, I instinctively knew that my friends, my sisters and I had no voice. We were smothered by the raging and damaging conservatism of the State, which was then led by the church, that put my health, my sisters' health and my friends' health at risk. We grew up with a trauma and terror of pregnancy, without sex education and without access to independent GPs. GPs would ring one's mother if one went to talk to them. We had no access to contraception. It was the dark ages for women and girls, yet it was only just over three decades ago. Instead I went to the library. I was fed up looking at the horrific posters and quotes about what we were doing to babies that my colleague, Senator Paul Gavan, talked about earlier. I went to the library and I tried to get some more information. I went to bookshops. I went to inform myself and to get away from the rhetoric that was smothering me, my friends and my sisters. We are 50% of the population and we have come a long way. In the 1980s we were young and we were on the cusp of a new generation. It has taken another three decades or so for the young people of today to have their voice. They are heard and they will be heard in this repeal of the eighth amendment.
I thank the Citizens' Assembly and welcome its findings. I also welcome the report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, and especially the contribution of Senator Catherine Noone, which recommends that Article 40.3.3° be repealed and replaced so that women can avail of terminations in certain circumstances, which would include when there is a risk to their health. The definition of health would not exclude mental health or make a distinction between it and physical health. This is essential. We have had the X case and the Y case. We have had women coming back with babies in boxes. We have had all those women admitted to psychiatric hospitals because of their distress and, because of the lack of legislation in this country, they have ended up being diagnosed as having psychiatric mental illness. That is not on. That is the fault of the State and we need to correct it.
Of all the lobbying, correspondence, emails and phone calls I have received, the message that moved me most was from a beautiful woman, Anita, who lives in Tipperary. She has allowed me to read this in the Chamber. She is 44.
I am lucky to have a beautiful boy who is now 5... I would love to have another child but sadly my age but also my mental health means that pregnancy and the years after birth would take a very big toll on me... I was aware that due to my previous mental health history there was a very strong chance that I may develop post natal depression.
She did indeed develop it.
I really can't express how difficult I found the first 6 months of motherhood. Society would have you believe that it's the most special time of a woman's life but I just found it hell. And I felt so guilty... Parenthood is tough but even tougher when you are dealing with demons in your head telling you every moment of every day that you are a terrible mother and your baby hates you... Over the years I gave abortion very little thought, until I became pregnant at 38... I asked my GP, innocently, what would happen if there was a major problem with my baby and it was best to end the pregnancy. When he replied "well you'd have to go to England" suddenly the realisation of what the 8th amendment meant and how it affects every aspect of a woman's pregnancy hit me...I would love more than anything to have another child and for my son to have a sibling but the stress that this would put on me is too much a risk to take...Can you honestly hand on heart say that you are OK with keeping me pregnant against my will, knowing how much trauma it will put me through?
I found that really thoughtful and provoking and I thank brave Anita. Whatever replaces the legislation, we need to provide a wide range of comprehensive health and reproductive services in which equality is realised and control is given to our women and girls to decide on their own health and well-being. Again, I thank the joint committee for its report, which reaches out not just to the women and girls, but to our men and our society and which provides for a kinder, compassionate, understanding and ultimately safer society which would repeal this draconian, smothering legislation. Support our women and girls in difficult circumstances. The status quois untenable and unsupportable. We need to remove the dark shadow over the daily lives of half of the population of Ireland. I trust the medical experts, I trust myself and I trust women. We all need to trust.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this vitally important debate on one of the key issues facing us in these, our times. I will not take the full ten minutes, so if the Acting Chairman would like to redistribute the remaining time to someone like Senator Máire Devine or Senator Colette Kelleher, they would have far more profound things to say than I would and I would be more than happy with that.
I commend the committee on its work on this issue over the past six months. I particularly commend the Chairman, my good friend, Senator Catherine Noone, on the role she played, often in trying circumstances. I fully appreciate the seriousness of this matter and I respect every single opinion that has and will be given on this matter by all contributors. I truly hope that the debates in the Dáil and Seanad today and tomorrow can be reasoned, that people can disagree without being disagreeable and that such debate will continue into a referendum campaign, if one should occur.
There are a few points I would like to raise with respect to the running of any referendum campaign, but I feel it is important that I outline my own personal opinions on this matter before I do so, in the interests of clarity. I fully accept and appreciate the recommendations of the committee and recognise that the conclusions were reached by consensus, which required compromise by many. However, although I agree with the recommendation to hold a referendum and appreciate the committee's further recommendations, they are not necessarily ones that I wholly agree with personally.
To be clear, I absolutely agree with the removal of Article 40.3.3° from our Constitution. It was put in place in 1983, when I was approximately four months old. I look forward to having the opportunity to vote on it. Beyond this, within my own party and further afield, many have understandably voiced their concerns with regard to the 12-week limit. I too have concerns in this regard but I am concerned that 12 weeks is simply too restrictive from the point of view of best practice in maternal health as it provides too arbitrary and tight a timeline. If a referendum was passed and such legislation was to be put in place, a 12-week limit would still leave Ireland with one of the most restrictive reproductive health systems in the European Union and a long way off the United Kingdom where a 24-week limit is in place. Therefore, I feel that we will still continue to export what should ultimately be the responsibility of our health system. As it stands, the Irish health system is only behind Malta, where abortion in any case is a criminal offence that can lead to jail sentences of 18 months.
That said, I feel it is important that any referendum is held on the basis of the committee's recommendations. Therefore I accept them, albeit reluctantly, and ultimately I hope it will be for the people of Ireland to decide on them. It should be for the people to decide. It is important that they can decide in the fairest and clearest of environments. This brings me to the vital role that the Referendum Commission will play in any such campaign and to a concern I have with regard to online campaigning. I have serious concerns over the appropriate use of paid advertisements online in any campaign. In the past week alone, I have had sponsored posts on my Facebook timeline from no less than ten different organisations seeking to retain the eighth amendment.At least, I think they are different organisations as their names, branding and messaging are almost identical, as is their use of stock photographs. It is not clear whether these pages represent different organisations or are simply fronts for one central organisation and ultimately one central funding source.
I have noted that a number of Members have stated elsewhere that while they accept the need to hold a referendum, they do not intend to personally campaign in any such referendum. I completely accept and appreciate their decision to do so. For myself, however, even though it might be ultimately politically damaging to my ambitions to go elsewhere, I fully intend to actively campaign for the repeal of the eighth amendment. I pledge that I will do so to the highest ethical standards in the interests of fair and decent debate but also in the interests of every single woman in this country.
I thank the Minister of State for his time today. I would like to welcome the report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and strongly support the call for the amendment to be repealed. I am deeply saddened by the harm it has done to women in this country since 1983. It is clear that we cannot move forward on this issue until the eighth amendment is removed from our constitution. The committee was careful, fair and considered in its work, and the focus on expert medical advice was very important. I join others in commending Senator Noone on her excellent work as Chair, a hugely difficult role which the Senator carried out fantastically. I hope the Senator and her family are very proud. I also thank my colleague in the Civil Engagement group, Senator Ruane, who represented our group on the committee and really did us proud with her hard work, attention to detail and commitment to justice. A huge amount of credit also must go to those campaigning on the ground for decades, those who organised marches, contacted Deputies and refused to let this issue go away when many were afraid to deal with it. Change starts from the bottom up and this has been no different. Overall, this is a big step forward for Ireland. Along with the Citizens' Assembly, it shows that when people hear the evidence, understand the reality of the situation and weigh it up in a calm and respectful environment, there is support for a woman's right to choose.
It was impressive to hear from Deputies and Senators who heard the submissions and discussions and changed their views over the process. The onus is now on those who were not part of the committee to do the same and to read those testimonies in detail. We need to make sure that the focus on evidence and calm reflection is carried on into the referendum debates in the coming months.
A few things from the committee's hearings and deliberations stood out to me in particular. The first of these is the insight that the eighth amendment simply does not stop abortion from happening. It just forces women to travel abroad for health care or to avail of it at home, illegally and in potentially unsafe conditions. Up to 12 women leave Ireland every day to access basic health care in the UK and over the past 30 years, approximately 180,000 women have been failed by the State. The simple reality is that Ireland already has abortion services; they are just located in the UK and across Europe.
We also cannot escape the socioeconomic aspect of this. In reality, many people have to delay travelling, as they need to save or borrow money to pay for flights, medical expenses, hotels and so on. For many, this is just too expensive. This means that for those who have the resources, abortion is a possibility but if one cannot afford to travel, one is immediately in more trouble. There is a class element here. Forcing women abroad for health care disproportionately affects those on lower incomes or from marginalised communities who cannot travel. Similarly, the widespread availability of abortion pills is incredibly important. Again, abortion is happening in Ireland and the question is not whether we personally agree with it but whether we want to ensure that Irish women's health care is safe, controlled, and up to the best medical standards.
When presented with the evidence, I heard many Deputies and Senators make the point that one may not be in favour of abortion but given the facts, one can understand that the decision is best made between a woman and her doctor. That is what it means to be pro-choice, namely, to face up to the daily reality and trust women. This is a highly sensitive and emotive issue and I know how passionate about it people are but if we can have the conversations and reflect on the evidence, we can support a woman's right to make her own choices.
I was also struck by the testimony of many of the country's most senior doctors and medical experts, as well as the legal advice that was heard. It was clear that given the complexity of the issue, the Constitution is not the place to deal with abortion. In the words of Dr. Peter Boylan, the eighth amendment has caused "significant difficulties for doctors", and "has caused grave harm to women, including death". When the referendum wording is decided, we must get this right. We need a straight repeal of the eighth amendment to be put to the people as soon as possible and I hope it is considered in May rather than June. I thank the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, for working quickly on this.
Dr. Rhona Mahony, master of the National Maternity Hospital, also noted how unworkable our current system is, stating that it "assumes we can accurately predict the risk of dying", and that "waiting for a woman to be sufficiently ill in order that she is perceived to be at risk of dying is potentially dangerous". It is horrendous to think that women in need of an abortion for medical reasons are essentially forced to wait until their condition deteriorates almost to the point of death before they can access a termination. To wait for someone to be bad enough before allowing them medical treatment is deeply unfair and unjust.
I think of Michelle Harte, who became pregnant while receiving treatment for cancer. She was advised by her doctors of the risks to her health and sought a termination. This was refused in Cork University Hospital as a threat to her life was not immediate. She was forced to travel to the UK to access health care. She died in 2011. I also think of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied a medically induced abortion, despite the inevitability of a miscarriage, because a foetal heartbeat was detected. It was a tragic and shocking story and her death could have been prevented. She should be alive today and it breaks my heart to think of what happened to her. Savita's case was another one of a long, dark line of tragedies that have shocked and saddened the country over recent decades.
Today, I think especially of the young migrant woman, Ms Y, who should have been welcomed to this country with the chance to start a new life. She became pregnant as a result of rape and sought an abortion under our current system on the grounds of the risk of suicide but was denied. She came to this country seeking help and we failed her. She was unable to travel to the UK because of her legal status and was essentially forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy until foetal viability. When she objected and went on hunger strike, the HSE sought a court order to sedate and drip-feed her before carrying out a Caesarean section at just 25 weeks. This took place a full 17 weeks after she had first sought help, expecting Irish hospitals to support her. It breaks my heart to think of what she went through. Her lawyers noted the huge emotional pressure inflicted upon this very young and vulnerable woman by the State. I think this is an understatement. I cannot bear to think of the impact this has had on her mental health. This is hugely important and we cannot in good conscience stand over a system that abuses and mistreats women like this. I would like to say this was a rare case but it is not. It is one of the many that led the United Nations Human Rights Committee to rule that the eighth amendment subjects women to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and violates their human rights.
This is a difficult and sensitive issue but if we look at the reality of what the eighth amendment has meant and the huge hurt and trauma it has caused for women in this country, we see that we must repeal it. This has been made clear by the Citizens' Assembly and now by the committee's report. I commend its members again on their hard work and dedication and I urge the Taoiseach to call a referendum quickly. I repeat, the Government must hurry up and get this done.
My voice will be among those calling for repeal when we go to the polls this year.
I have listened to this debate from my office. It is obviously one of the gravest issues that will ever be discussed in these Houses because unlike many other issues which we debate, this involves the lives and deaths of human beings. It is no secret that I was extremely disappointed with the approach taken by the committee, the way its work was managed, and the way the time allowed for questioning and thorough analysis of the issues was completely curtailed. I regret to say that there was on occasions an atmosphere that I felt was disrespectful of the minority. There were a lot of things to regret, but perhaps I should focus on the issues.
It is staggering to consider the things the committee never considered in detail or at all. I was among those asking to hear evidence about the human rights case for the eighth amendment. We heard from international experts from a supposed human rights culture that does not believe that the unborn has any rights before birth. That is the standard. That is the default position among the international human rights fraternity, the people who dominate the debate. They will never, ever criticise a law on abortion on the grounds that it is too liberal.The fact that this was not engaged with or that a voice to explain the human rights thinking behind protecting both unborn babies and their mothers in the Irish Constitution was not heard was a remarkable omission.
Another great issue that we never got to grips with was the question of whether the eighth amendment has actually contributed to saving lives. This issue is often presented as though the only issue is whether we put the inconvenience on women by forcing them to go to Great Britain for abortions or let those same abortions happen in Ireland. An NGO which supports abortion was brought before the committee even though advocacy groups were not supposed to be there and made the blithe and untested claim that it does not matter what the law says as the same number of abortions take place. I am roughly paraphrasing what it said. However, the obvious comparator is Great Britain with its figure of one in five pregnancies ending in abortion. According to the best figures we can muster and the best estimates, estimates that have been prepared by actuaries, if we take our abortion figures, tragic as they are at over 3,000 annually, if we allow even for 1,000 or so or more abortions taking place through the pill, it is a far lower abortion rate.
One in 19 Irish pregnancies ends in abortion. However, the committee never felt it was necessary to look at whether the law being the way it is in Ireland has caused people not to choose abortion with the result that there might be thousands of people walking around today living as I live and in perfect health. That is really what is at stake. It is whether we see one person to be protected or whether we see two. If the unborn baby was not a human being, it certainly would be heartless to deprive anybody of the right to abortion but what is at stake here is whether we see one person to be protected or two. What we have achieved in Ireland is a law that guarantees the right to life of the mother in all circumstances. Contrary to what has just been said, the threat to life does not have to be imminent. One senior obstetrician told me that they were comfortable that the law allows them to do whatever they need to do to protect a woman. That is why the unfortunate invocation of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy was so unfair because this did not have to do with doctors refusing life-saving treatment to a woman. This, according to the reports, the inquest and all of the documents, was about doctors failing to comprehend that a woman's life was in danger. We need to be honest and not use these tragic cases in a propagandistic way.
The experiences of families that believe the lives of some of their loved ones have been saved by the eighth amendment was not of interest to the committee. I know one family that made an abortion appointment twice but because the law is the way it is, there was that necessary process of thinking. I know one person who came back and said to me: "If only I'd known somebody to tell me I could cope." That is what is at stake. We pretend to be compassionate by saying we will let everybody make the decision and that it should be between themselves and their doctors but who is going to speak up for the baby? I have not heard any contribution here so far actually talk about the baby as though he or she has any rights. I do not know what that means. I do not know what politicians are really thinking. I do not know if they feel they have to obey a party line or if they really do not believe the a baby has any rights because what was proposed by the committee leaves the baby with very few rights. Let us remember because people wanted to talk about complex and tragic cases, like rape, that do conflict people. The morning-after pill is legal in Ireland. Protection for the unborn baby takes place from the moment of implantation and many people who experience that horrible crime go on to keep their babies, which was one very positive thing we heard at the committee. However, in order not to have to deal with the complexities of whether we would legalise abortion in this case or not, the committee proposed that it be okay to take any unborn child's life up to 12 weeks.
I received a letter recently from somebody who asked whether I would consider asking that my colleagues and I in the Oireachtas be given a short straightforward factual presentation on the stages of development that a foetus-unborn baby goes through during a pregnancy. My correspondent said that surprisingly, this information was never set before either the Citizens' Assembly or the committee. I can certainly speak for the latter being true. If there are potential votes on ending an unborn baby's life at particular stages, it would be important in the interests of evidence-based decision making that each legislator would be in possession of this key information and so could be clear in his or her mind on what exactly is at stake at each stage.
I am not talking about gory pictures. I have never been in favour of them. I think they dehumanise the baby and show a lack of respect for the person who is unwittingly confronted with the deep injustice of late-term abortions, particularly in all their physical reality. However, I am talking about us being open to talking about the developmental stages of the human being because one thing is clear. Science is showing us just how wonderfully complex and sophisticated human life is from the earliest days in the womb. One does not need to go through pro-life literature to see it. The pregnancy websites for men and women expecting their babies will talk about your little baby and what is happening to him or her in the womb at three or four weeks and five or six weeks. What one will be stunned by is the early stage sophistication. When we pointed out at the committee that there is a heart beating at 21 days, we were met with the response that this is just a neural tube. This pulse is what turns out to be the heartbeat. Why would people want to deny the sophistication of the development of the unborn child? This is not a potential human being. This is a human being with potential at the exact physicality and the exact state of development that is proper for his or her state in life.
I heard passing references to respecting different views but I also heard references to zealots. How can we regard as a zealot somebody who believes passionately that there is a baby as well as a mother to be protected? How can one regard as a zealot somebody who is willing to pay more of their own taxpayer's money to ensure that no woman who finds herself in a crisis pregnancy situation feels alone and unsupported? How can one regard as a zealot somebody who believes that a mother must always be entitled to every necessary medical treatment, even if that results in the loss of her baby because that is what our Constitution guarantees?
Reference was made to Peter Sutherland. May he rest in peace, he was a great Irishman. However, I would ask people to be careful about invoking particular names. I knew Peter Sutherland. I spent a very pleasant hour in his house not that long ago. He encouraged me very much in my politics and urged me to keep doing what I do. While he did give his advice, I do not believe he would have been comfortable with what we are proposing now. There are good people on both sides of this debate but we should remember that this is the first time it has ever been proposed that some human beings will have their right to exist taken away. It is not that anybody likes anybody to have to go through a crisis pregnancy. It is because the lesser of two evils always involves letting everybody live so that they can have everything or at least some of what each person in this room, including myself, enjoys, which is the opportunity to have an imperfect life.
As has been said, this is a very difficult subject and there are many differing views. I think we are proceeding in a respectful manner and, as has been said by Senator Richmond, I intend to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. I always believed as, I am sure, do all Members, that the most basic and fundamental right is the right to life. Any deliberate, planned or wilful extinguishment of life is killing. Surely we do not want to go down the road of Great Britain where abortion has been legislated for and where, to date, approximately 9 million children in the womb have been aborted. I would be totally opposed to neutering or lessening the protection which exists in the Constitution for the equal right to life of the baby in the womb, unless it was to be adequately replaced in law. The baby in the womb is the tiniest and weakest member of our society and should feel that the womb is a safe place. They have nobody to defend them, apart from us as legislators, and I believe we should not fail them. We should not be seen to dance to the tune of the pill providers who have a vested interest in the abortion industry and want to spread their influence from Britain to this country so that abortion becomes available here, possibly even on demand.
The medical health of women is obviously vitally important. That is why we have the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act as well as other things to which reference has been made. I listened to Senator Swanick with interest earlier. Doctors have the hippocratic oath, as he said, and their ethics. The medical profession and any maternity hospital will look after any girl or woman if she is in distress or having any trouble whatsoever with her pregnancy for whatever reason. Whether it is as the result of taking some pill that is probably not proper or is dangerous, it does not matter; it will be taken care of. We could be building a conflict into our law by proceeding to remove the current protection afforded. The equal right to life is important.
The tragedy of the Kerry babies over 30 years ago has dominated the news in recent days. Baby John was found on the White Strand in Cahirciveen, stabbed to death shortly after birth. This was regarded as murder. Inside the womb should be the safest place for the weakest and most defenceless. Are we losing all sense of proportion by now proposing to legalise the ending of a baby's life in the womb at any time up to 12 weeks? We should maintain the safety and sanctity of the womb for our unborn at all costs and adhere to a proper set of values. This process still has quite a way to go. We have the High Court decision of Mr. Justice Humphreys which will be revisited by the Supreme Court next month. We are aware that the Department of Health and the Office of the Attorney General are liaising actively and will have to agree on a proposed legislative framework. The Cabinet will then have to decide on the question that will be put to the people as well as the accompanying legislation. We will all have the opportunity to return to this subject again and we will learn more in the immediate future. With that, I am prepared to leave it for now.
I thought long and hard before coming here to speak tonight. I speak as the brother of eight sisters, the son of a mother, the husband of a wife and the father of a daughter. I see it has gone viral already that while my colleague, Senator Kelleher, was speaking, I tried to shut her up.
I do not know anyone in the world who is not pro-life. Every single one of us cherishes life and cherishes the lives that come into this world. We had a debate here some time ago on an RTÉ documentary about mother and baby homes. The following morning, a woman - a girl I knew growing up - rang me. I had known that she had been pregnant as a teenager and that she had left Galway to have her child in peace and quiet. I thought she had gone to a family; that is what we were told at the time. This girl did not go to a family, however; she went to one of these homes. I have spoken to her many times since that documentary and the pain, hurt and sense of betrayal and injustice that comes from that woman is heartbreaking to listen to. Then this debate on the repeal of the eighth amendment started. As someone with a constitutionally established position in the Seanad, I support the right of the Constitution to determine where we go in this country. Therefore, I support the right of the people to have a vote on repealing the eighth amendment. The people will decide what way that goes.
Since it was announced, I have been inundated with messages, whether text messages, via Twitter and Facebook, and on postcards. One thing that shocks me is that the majority of them come from men, the same men who made these girls pregnant years ago and deserted them the moment they became pregnant. They left the unborn child to be carried to birth, such as that poor girl who had to hand up their child and have it exported to the United States or handed over to someone else for adoption. They are the same men who live respectable lives today as professionals, farmers, teachers, doctors or whatever, who abandoned their own children and the girls they got pregnant, had them branded as some sort of harlot in the town, and walked away, still respectable.
Why do I stand here today? I support the referendum and the right of the people to make the decision they wish to make. I stand here because my colleague, Senator Catherine Noone, got an unmerciful time from social media over recent days. To these clowns who send me and others messages - they are on both sides - and to people who exploit photographs of foetuses in an effort to drive home a message, I say, "Do not send them to me". The woman who works in my office does make decisions and she does not deserve that.
The same applies to people on the pro-choice side. Do not send me messages. I am an old fella of 64 years, and I can make up my own mind. If I need advice, I will talk to the women I love and they will help me. It breaks my heart when I think of some of the girls I knew growing up who had children. Once they had a child, they were called a whore because they were not married. Let get real here. As my colleague, Senator Buttimer, said, and I do not always agree with him, let us deal with this in a respectful way. Let us have a respectful, calm debate. I do not want people from the United States contacting me or trying to degrade or denigrate one of my colleagues here.
We will make our own choice in our own way. It is painful to make the choice. It is not easy on anybody on any side, but let us make it in our own way. Let us talk to the people we trust and love. To the men who support either side, I have great news - they will never be pregnant and they will never have to make the decision.
When I was growing up, I knew one man who, as far as I knew, was so conservative it was not funny. His daughter got pregnant and the big discussion at the time was how they would tell her father. She was living outside the country and had to come home. I spoke to some people afterwards. The father had copped on that there was something going on in the kitchen and walked in and asked what was happening. They told him they would tell him later so he asked again what was going on and for them to tell him. Someone told him she was pregnant and he told them, "Bring her home". I knew that man and I know what he went through bringing her home because he was about as conservative as one could meet.
Let us stop the filth and be respectful of human beings on all sides. I plead with people to deal with this as my colleague, Senator Noone, dealt with it as chairman of the committee and as Senator Rónán Mullen does in his way on his side of the argument. I may not agree with either of them but I respect the right of both of them to talk about how they feel and the rest of the country ought to do likewise.I was at a function at the weekend and a person at my table asked about the position on the eighth amendment. The answer was that that was not the appropriate place to discuss the matter.
I have no idea what is coming after the amendment or referendum, although I would like to know. As a man, I will never have to make that choice but my daughter and two granddaughters may, so, God damn it, I do not want to do the wrong thing. I want to let the referendum do its thing and we can then discuss how we will deal with it. I deeply respect those who have put their opinions before the community.
I commend Senator Noone on the role she played as chairperson of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. She was calm, patient and fair and her conduct as chairperson was everything for which an institution such as this could hope. Those traits are all the more impressive when one considers the issue at hand and the behaviour of some people.
For quite some time, it has been apparent that we would discuss the report of the joint committee during our first sitting week after the recess. It is worthy of attention that, on our return to the Seanad and during the first statements of 2018, which marks the centenary of women’s suffrage in Ireland, we are debating where Ireland stands regarding women’s health care and rights. Over the course of this year, the Oireachtas will mark the work of the suffrage movement in Ireland dating back to the early 19th century. There will be cultural, historical and educational events involving a celebration of the lives of women involved in legislative reform and those elected to Parliament. In the words of Rita O’Hare, they were "brave, beautiful and extraordinary women who defied the social mores of that era, who came from every class and creed and background, from rural communities, from the slums of this city and those who rejected the confines of class and privilege to join that combination of the national movement, the women’s movement and the labour movement in declaring that they stood for the republic." This centenary year is not just about marking an anniversary, it is about continuing a struggle. Those women struggled for agency, not only for themselves, their sisters or their comrades but also for the independence of a nation.
Having watched much of its proceedings and having already reflected on the work of its chairperson, I also commend members of the joint committee such as Deputy Louise O’Reilly and Senator Lynn Ruane. They and others on the committee have yet again proven that this institution and our society is best served by a diversity of imagination and representation. Only 35 of 158 Deputies in the Dáil, or 22%, and only 19 of 60 Senators, or 32%, are women. Something needs to give.
My sister and my female friends stood with me when I demanded equality. I now stand with them and with mná na hÉireann. We are on the other side of a Citizens’ Assembly and an Oireachtas committee. It is time to repeal the eighth amendment, to begin as broad a conversation as possible and to bring as many people with us as we can. As has been said, this is not the 1980s. The information is accessible and the factual evidence is there.
During the committee's proceedings, it was stated that one in eight Irish women of child-bearing age have had abortions. This is a truly diverse and far-reaching issue. It has become obvious that we need the ability to legislate. To so do, we must remove women’s reproductive health from Bunreacht na hÉireann in order to robustly respond to the unpredictable and exceptional aspects of many pregnancies. We also need to formulate legislative responses to technological and medical advances. Article 40.3.3° does not take account of the unpredictability of any given pregnancy and cannot respond to effectively safeguard a woman’s health. Many witnesses to the joint committee confirmed that the eighth amendment restricts our doctors and medical staff in their response to guarding a woman’s health. It is time to listen to our medical professionals. They will play a central role in this campaign. We need only reflect on the case of Savita Halappanavar to know that the ambiguity of our laws has led to uncertainty in medical responses. Savita was a victim of that ambiguity.
I say to those who support the eighth amendment that to reduce the need for such a service we must work together to give women a full range of accessible contraceptive options and a fully effective and inclusive sex education curriculum, including modules on consent. To reduce the number of delayed abortions overseas, we must make provision for this medical procedure in Ireland. The eighth amendment does not save lives but, rather, puts women’s lives at risk and supports a regime of medically unsupervised abortions via pills ordered online.
I want to commend the brave women who have come forward to share their stories of difficult decisions made and of shame shipped overseas. Those stories have been told in a selfless manner that articulates difficult circumstances and they have been put into the public space so that we, as policymakers and citizens, can listen and reform a law in order that others will not have to confront the same situations. Previous Governments passed the buck because they did not favour the electoral turbulence of taking action on this challenging issue. We need to have the bravery, where previous administrations did not, to do what is right without taking account of re-election. We need to listen because the calls have never been louder to hold a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment and we need to confirm that as soon as possible.
I am of the view that the referendum will pass and that the core human decency of the Irish people will prevail. Every day, I see young people demanding agency and independence. We saw that during the referendum on civil marriage equality. Older generations with different experiences will expose the misogyny and ingrained sense of prejudice historically experienced by the women in this State. The eighth amendment is the biggest obstacle to women’s health care in this State. It is a representation of a State and society that did all they could to control and police our bodies and sex lives. It condemned and continues to condemn women to be victims of a dodgy and obscured version of morality. We live in a State that has condemned independently minded women, whether through the denial of basic contraception, upholding a rape culture or incarcerating women in laundries, mother and baby homes or other mental institutions. We have stigmatised women for having sex, yet have been seemingly oblivious to the lack of any equal moral standard expected of heterosexual men. We stigmatised Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old girl from Granard, County Longford, who died beside a grotto in 1984 and who felt she had nowhere to turn. We owe it to her, to every woman who has travelled in fear of criminalisation, to our generations who deserve better and who deserve universal health care and, in this centenary year, to the women of an Chéad Dáil not to be so hypocritically reliant on British policy.
I welcome the Minister. I welcome and support the report and commend the committee on its work. I particularly join in commending its chair, Senator Noone, on her calm, reasoned and fair approach throughout and I express the pride of the Civil Engagement group in our own representative, Senator Ruane, who made an always insightful and strong contribution to the work of the committee. The committee was respectful of the very important work of the Citizens' Assembly, which should also be acknowledged. However, as was appropriate, it subjected the assembly's recommendations to further scrutiny. Not all of those recommendations were carried forward but they were given very full and proper consideration. I commend the thoughtful and measured way in which the committee members approached their questioning of expert witnesses and encourage everybody to look at the transcripts of those sessions because they are very illuminating and, at times, inspiring.
The committee, having noted concerns around the question of constitutional wording, spoke to several legal experts and decided by a large majority to support a simple repeal. I also believe that was the right decision and I know the Minister will now go through his process of examining that issue. I hope he can do so in a timely manner to ensure that we move forward. I hope that the outcome of that is a simple repeal because it deals in the clearest way with the questions at issue.Ultimately, in the referendum people will be voting on the question of repeal and the removal of decisions around women's bodies from the Constitution. This is very appropriate. Regardless of one's views on the legislation, it is important to note that we as the legislators step up and take responsibility for producing legislation for our citizens and for women in Ireland.
I first marched for repeal in 1992 as a teenager. I was moved and shocked by the X case as what was happening to another teenager in Ireland. I was also moved by the Magdalen laundries stories. At the time, friends of mine in the Galway Youth Theatre were taking part in the first performances of Patricia Burke Brogan's Eclipsedwhere we learned about other ways that young, pregnant women in Ireland had been treated in the past. It makes me very sad that there are still teenagers who are travelling alone or who are taking medication in secret, and that there are still young women and men who are having to campaign out on the streets on this issue. I am glad that we may now be able to move forward on it.
It is clear, however, from the evidence that has been given to the committee that the 12 women a day who travel from Ireland are not just teenagers. Dr. Patricia Lohr told the committee that 70% of the Irish women who receive abortions in the UK are married or with a partner. Nearly half of the women had had at least one previous birth. Many of the women who seek a termination are already loving parents and they well understand what is involved in their decision to proceed or not with another pregnancy.
This is an issue that affects every woman and every kind of family. We are often told that abortion is a divisive issue but I do not know if that needs to be the case. I believe that we are learning how to talk to each other about this issue. We should all resist those who seek to make this an automatic point of simple division. I believe that it is actually a diverse issue. Each pregnancy experienced by each woman and each decision to terminate a pregnancy takes place in the context of that woman’s own life and circumstances. Those circumstances may include rape, incest, mental or physical concerns or complex personal situations. That is why the 12 week provision is so important even though it is still very conservative by European standards, as has been pointed out.
People who make one choice during one pregnancy may find a different choice is right for them in another pregnancy. I was struck by Dr. Boylan's comments to the committee that some who choose to carry to full term despite a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly may, if they receive the same diagnosis on a subsequent pregnancy, not feel able to make the same decision again. I strongly welcome the recommendation in the report around fatal foetal anomaly and I commend the dignity and bravery of those who shared their difficult and personal stories - and indeed all those with different experiences who shared their stories over the years. They contributed to the breaking of a silence and to the movement of the issue from the symbolic or abstract realm into that which is experienced by real women in real time.
It was also clear from the evidence to the committee that the eighth amendment has had a very real constraining and sometimes dangerous impact on already difficult clinical decision making in our hospitals, particularly around the determination of risk to life or health. Reference was made to the Savita Halappanavar case and that it showed the failure to apprehend that a woman's life was in danger. How much more difficult and complex is it to apprehend that risk when one is doing it in a criminal context - as it was described to the committee? At the committee doctors spoke of the dynamic process where circumstances can change. Other doctors asked how a risk of death is to be determined - is it 10% or is it 80% - and they noted that each woman would also have a view on what level of risk might be acceptable or not in her circumstances. The eighth amendment means, unfortunately, that women’s views are currently given little consideration in these decisions. Women are even excluded from the legal rights afforded to other patients.
Garret FitzGerald, speaking against the eighth amendment in 1983, spoke of the possibility that the lives of mothers who were saved in the case of ectopic pregnancies or cancer of the womb would be endangered. We have since seen that sadly this is case and where the eighth amendment has indeed endangered or cost women’s lives. It can also be very difficult in practice to truly draw lines between risk to life and risk to health. There has been very little scope to respond to risk to health of the woman in cases, for example, where a pregnancy may cause severe or long-term damage to a woman’s body or well-being. We heard earlier about Anita's case. I heard from Anita about the very difficult choices and decisions she has to make about her mental health and pregnancy.
I strongly welcome the committee’s recommendation that termination of pregnancy should be lawful where there is a risk to life or health of the woman as assessed properly by medical specialists. Hard decisions are already being made in hospitals every day. Repeal of the eighth amendment will give women and medical professionals the space in which to make those decisions properly. It is very significant that the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists supports the recommendations of the committee as do groups such as Midwives for Choice. In many cases the medical experts who testified are not campaigners. They are practitioners on the front line, right across the country, and they need to be listened to.
The eighth amendment affects all women but some are far more vulnerable to those impacts; those who are in poverty, those who are transgender, those who are young, perhaps those in rural areas, migrants and those who cannot travel. There is a concern that many of those women will still be vulnerable, even with the 12 week limit. This needs to be monitored. My time today is limited but I would like a discussion - at another time - on specific vulnerabilities. My colleague Senator Ruane spoke very passionately on this issue, especially around economic vulnerability.
One of the most crucial learnings from the committee is that criminalising abortion is not the way to prevent abortion. Evidence from around the world from countries that have roughly comparable levels of abortion availability, either those with liberal or restrictive regimes, shows that the safety of abortions is what is at stake. Reference was made earlier to the UK as the obvious comparator. I would question if the UK is the obvious comparator for Ireland in this regard. It is quite a different country with a different history. Perhaps the most useful comparators to look to are countries that had restrictive regimes and then had change. For example, in Italy and Turkey the legalisation of abortion led to a reduction in the levels of abortions. In countries where a move was made from a restrictive abortion regime to a more liberal regime we have not seen a massive spike in the numbers of women accessing abortion.
The threat and cruelty of the Magdalen laundries did not stop women getting pregnant. The shadow of the eighth amendment and 14 year prison sentence has not stopped women seeking abortions. Measures that actually reduce the rates of crisis pregnancy of abortion are the greater availability of contraception and the provision of supports for those parenting alone. Many of us who are here today supporting this report and calling for repeal have also done the work on these issues. I have been proud over the last year to speak on the need for serious improvements in how we treat lone parents in Ireland. Being serious about choice is being serious about making sure that all choices are properly supported. That is why the ancillary recommendations in this report are so important. They call for better sex education outside of one specific ethos. They also call for access to free contraception and properly resourced reproductive care, including proper access to scans that would allow pregnant women to look at the development of their foetus.
-----including women who have a disability. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is clear that it is very important for all women, including those with a disability, to have the right to determine the number and spacing of their children.
I sincerely encourage colleagues who have expressed their personal desire to reduce the levels of abortion, and those who spoke of wanting to tell people about other options and choices, to consider that currently those conversations cannot happen. If we are serious about really ensuring that people look at all the options and choices then it has to happen in an open way and not under the threat of a criminal sanction. The removal of the eighth amendment will allow more honest and constructive conversations about prevention, choices and social supports.
Hard decisions are already being made every day in Ireland. I do not believe they need to be made in secrecy.I urge that we move forward in a positive way, having a more open public debate, while bringing back privacy with respect to personal decisions. Trust is the key word we have heard; we need to trust women and the State needs to earn the trust of women.
The Minister is very welcome to the House. I probably will not use my ten minutes and I was not planning to speak to this debate but it has been very respectful and tempered. This is reflective of what I have witnessed as an observer in the course of the vast majority of the work carried out by the committee examining the eighth amendment under the stewardship of Senator Noone as Chair. Like others, I pay particular tribute to the Senator, who led the committee with a tremendous amount of tenacity, grace and, above all else, patience, it is fair to say. Members have already alluded to some of the vile nature of abuse taken by the Senator, as have many of us simply for being Members of this Oireachtas, via social media. Although she might not say it, it is important to point out that the Senator had to face it from Members of this Oireachtas, which is not good enough.
I support a repeal of the eighth amendment. Listening to today's debate and the discussion in the wider society over the past number of months and years, I only wish I had a vote in that referendum. I assure colleagues and those observing from the outside that I will use the very limited amount of clout I have in this institution to ensure we have that referendum. It is past time that the women of Ireland had their say, along with the rest of us, on this matter. I do not want to be flippant and it is a central component of my role in this House to urge people in here and outside who may be following the debate that regardless of what happens with this referendum - I hope we win it and see a repeal of the eighth amendment - there are women in the North of our country who will continue to face the exact same dangers, risks, oppression and suppression of their medical and health needs. I sincerely hope that we get to a point where all across the country, women will not have to fear that kind of criminalisation and risk to their health and emotional, physical and psychological well-being.
Senator Craughwell made a couple of points during the course of his contribution and he is correct. It is something that has caused me conflict, as I am sure it has for all my male colleagues in the course of this debate. He is right in saying we will never be pregnant, which goes without saying. He stated we have women in our lives who we love, admire, respect and cherish and it is because of this we should be vocal and active about this as a matter of rights and health. It is why I have come to my current position. We should listen to the arguments both for and against repeal, as that is part of our role as legislators. Ultimately, we must make the decisions. Nobody has advocated it but I should point out that none of us should seek a cop-out or political cover with this matter. It is a matter that overwhelmingly has an impact on the lives of Irish women but it is relevant to all of us. We have heard about the subjugation of women during the course of the debate and if we believe it was wrong and should be ended, and if we believe in a society that treats people equally with dignity and respect, we all must be vocal about it. We must ensure an end to what is ultimately an injustice inflicted upon women.
Like many people, I do not even really know why I held my position on the issue over a number of years. I probably had it via osmosis from the society and media in which we grew up. That view has come to change. Similarly to Senator Buttimer's observations, it has changed because of lived experience. It came from meeting and hearing people, having an understanding and appreciation for the kind of negative impact this bad measure had on the lives of women. Senator Devine very eloquently outlined this during the course of her contribution. It is because I am a republican and I value mná na hÉireann, and it is because I have been given the honour to come here as a legislator that I believe the eighth amendment is a bad measure. It was bad when the referendum was held and it is bad now. We have the opportunity to end it and we have a responsibility not just to the women of Ireland but to people who are mobilised in calling for it to be repealed. We must give them the democratic franchise to bring that about. For what it is worth, sin mo méid.
All my life I have attempted to support people with various challenges, many of whom had to make difficult decisions at times of crisis in their lives. For the most part, people, in my experience, make good and sound decisions that are not self-serving. Repeatedly, I have seen families pull together to give somebody who is disabled the best opportunity for a decent life. It is mainly the mother, the female partner or the daughter who is core to that ongoing effort. I ask myself how I can realistically not trust women on this matter. We have a duty as legislators - all 218 of us, the majority of whom are male - to support women as part of the electorate to be in the decision-making process. For example, we trust family carers, and two thirds of those are women, to make very challenging decisions 24-7.
A practical but essential point in this is to continue to improve our services. There should be timely information and non-directive counselling, along with a range of readily available practical services. These are critical as people struggle with this most difficult decision. In Ireland, we do not have a class of people called "the disabled" any more. We have people who live with a disability. People with disabilities, their loved ones, families and friends are keenly interested and have a big stake in this debate. They are listening to it. They also need to be heard in it. How will they hear references to people with disabilities and have they heard references so far? I am not talking about what might be called political correctness. I am asking that references to disability from all quarters respect the sensitivities and full humanity of those who have a disability. The same should be true for women who have terminated a pregnancy and those close to them.
We should have a debate in the Seanad and beyond that respects the immense challenges that women have faced in the past, are facing today and will face in the future. How we speak and our demeanour must be sensitive, thoughtful and respectful. I am thankful there are decision-assisting processes, as I would call them, now available that we did not have in 1983. There will be a referendum commission and the work and report of the Citizens' Assembly. We have the all-party Oireachtas committee report and the determinations of our courts. Generally speaking, we have greater access to information and availability of views and perspectives than we would have had in the past. We will have also learned as to how we conducted ourselves the last time. It remains to be seen but I am hopeful that we will all manage to behave in a respectful and dignified manner, regardless of our strongly-held views.The work of legislators is to make judgments in the public interest. On this occasion, we have the possibility of sharing some of that decision making with the public by Members coming to a decision to hold a referendum and to support that process.
We, as legislators, make many decisions to choose or not to choose a course of action which will have profound outcomes and consequences for people, for example, the making and enforcement of road traffic regulations and regulatory and other standards of health and safety. The regulation of the finance and banking sector has consequences for people. Who can state that what I will simply call shortfalls across those areas have not caused significant negative outcomes and shortened and even ended people's life? Our responsibility for life and death issues is part and parcel of all our work in the Oireachtas. How we choose to deploy our health service budget is another example. Choices are made.
Today, we are dealing with an issue on which it is difficult to have a debate and consider in a dispassionate and open way, yet it is about each of us in a very personal way. We all have been close to the core issues or some have been at the centre of them, yet these insights are not readily available. It is interesting to hear Members speak in a way that I have not heard them before about their own experiences in and around this issue. That is really helpful and I appreciate it.
This issue requires that I strive to act and speak in a non-judgmental and trusting way. This requires that I attribute to others the best of motives regardless of the positions they adopt. There is no place for assertions that ascribe or suggest criminal or immoral conduct because others take a counter course. Getting the best decision, which may not be idyllic, requires more listening, more reflection and less pronouncements. Regardless of what decisions are made this year, this deeply human question remains and the trauma surrounding it will remain. The people of Ireland, the courts and the Oireachtas will be returning to deal with the matter in some way or other in a shorter timeframe than another 35 years. How we collectively and respectfully debate this matter will determine how well we progress from this point to make the best decision we can that is faithful to the common good and in time will help us to make further decisions.
As has been said by many, we must consciously now as never before make decisions as a democracy. We must make decisions about issues that did not surface before for a whole range of reasons. We effectively left these decisions to religious leaders or other proxy decision makers. Now we must be counted. How we deal with the issue is an indication of our ability to develop as a democracy, a democracy in which we progressively give better expression to the fundamental rights that we gave to ourselves and expressed in our Constitution. It is important not to be consumed or overwhelmed by this issue, although it is extremely serious. I trust Irish women and families to consider the possibility of abortion very sensitively into the future, just as they do today. This has never been, is not and never will be an easy decision for women, irrespective of the circumstances or the improvements that we make.
We have built or sustained cultural, political and practical obstacles. These obstacles have made it so difficult for women to come to the decision of what is best for them in their particular circumstances. This is wrong. We can do better. We have the possibility of doing better.
I am the man in the group, I will be all right.
I want Irish women to be able to make difficult decisions about matters which currently impact or will impact on their lives. It is my intention to vote "Yes" to the removal of the eighth amendment and therefore make way for the participation of the public in shaping our law and practice on this matter.
This topic is very difficult for many of us to discuss. In spite of how it is so often represented in public debate, it is not an issue of two sides, black or white, but rather a complicated and multifaceted one that involves both personal conviction and ethics as much as facts and details. This is unavoidable when it comes to something as significant and important as abortion.
It is now well beyond time for the people of Ireland to have this discussion again. As Senator Lynn Ruane said, we need to move on. As has been said so many times, nobody born after 1965 has had their say on the substantive issue of the legality of abortion and that probably includes the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris.
The tragic death of Ms Savita Halappanavar pushed the issue back into public consciousness and highlighted to the general public what activists and those working in the area have known for so long - that the current constitutional arrangements around abortion law in Ireland are dangerous to women, do not prevent abortions occurring and are by definition an Irish solution to an Irish problem. Ms Halappanavar's death has meant that the long period of sweeping this issue under the carpet is over and a new generation of Irish citizens are swelling the chorus of voices for a better more humane and realistic regime.
The experience of the Citizens' Assembly and the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment illustrate both the changing attitudes of the Irish people to these issues and the way in which minds can be changed. The Green Party was instrumental in having the issue placed on the agenda of the Citizens' Assembly, offering the Government support in the Seanad and the Dáil. This was controversial at the time but the correctness of the approach has been proven. The outcomes of both committees has seen the power of facts, details and the health needs of women brought to the fore and some members of both bodies changed their minds and their positions in the face of these facts. I pay tribute to the hard work of members of this committee, in particular to my colleague, Senator Lynn Ruane, whose experience, passion, dedication, clarity and effectiveness have been so impressive. Such a process can never be entirely amicable and without controversy, but the professionalism, fairness and decency shown by participants and in particular by the chairs of both processes, Senator Catherine Noone and Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, offers a model in constructive deliberative politics. Changing one's mind is not a crime, even in politics. The brave testimonies of those such as my colleague, Senator Ned O'Sullivan, are to be commended for their humanity and understanding.
As with some other |Members of the Oireachtas, I need to give more consideration to every single one of the conclusions of the committee, but I am heartened that the central recommendations are those that I believe are most needed. A straight repeal of the eighth amendment by referendum is the best outcome for the country, for the health of pregnant women in Ireland and for us a Republic. As Senator Swanick said, we need as a society to start trusting women and that involves tackling the hypocrisy at the heart of our current system, with thousands of women travelling to the United Kingdom or elsewhere to have abortions, and thousands more availing of abortion pills online. These women are putting themselves through significant emotional and financial distress and are risking breaking the law in order to seek medical care and a solution to their crisis pregnancy. This puts the lie to the idea that any person would engage lightly in such matter or use abortion as contraception. Let us put an end to that idea right here and right now.
Instead of receiving the support and assistance of their State in their time of need, they have faced criminalisation, demonisation and isolation. At the same time we put the eighth amendment into the Constitution we severely controlled access to contraception in Ireland. We are rightly contemptuous of that regime now and one would be hard pressed to find anyone to defend it. Similar arguments to maintain the status quohad to be tackled, campaigned against and dismantled in order to give Irish people the right to decide their own destiny.
Observing the process in the Citizens' Assembly and the Oireachtas joint committee, it became clear that the overwhelming majority of medical opinion maintains that the eighth amendment does not work. It does not work for pregnant people in medical care as we saw with Savita Halappanavar, Ann Lovett and all of the individuals who were mentioned by Senator Ó Ríordáin who were dragged through the courts for trying to exercise control over their bodies. The provision does not work for medical professionals. It leaves them in a legal limbo and unfree to offer the assistance they consider necessary.
I have learned so much from observing these processes over the past month. I learned that the 12-week limit is one based on fact. I also learned that testing for conditions such as chromosomal abnormality is not possible before that time and is thus not relevant for this part of the debate. These relevant facts must form the basis of public debate in advance of the referendum.
This campaign will be difficult. I was not in Ireland in 1983. Instead, I was on Greenpeace vessels that sailed around the world to tackle nuclear waste. From what I heard about the 1983 campaign, I think what I did was a lot easier.
We must avoid the divisions and hostilities of that campaign. There is an obligation on all of us to keep the debate respectful, to understand the points of view of those who do not agree with us and to remember that the views of the Irish people are neither set in stone nor as polarised between two mythical poles as might seem from the debate to date.
One of my favourite political quotes has been on my mind this week and it is as follows: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" It is normally attributed to John Maynard Keynes but whatever its source the feeling is apt for now. I hope that we can all consider our positions. I hope that we will consider the needs and rights of women in Irish society, and the urging of medical and legal experts, and reach the best solution for us, as a democracy, in the 21st century.
The Minister has the reports of both the Citizens' Assembly and Oireachtas joint committee and statements from the Seanad and Dáil this evening. I hope he has the courage to arrange a referendum on this issue as soon as possible because it needs to be sorted.
I have written down what I want to say because it is very short.
I favour the repeal of the eighth amendment of the Constitution. However, this is a very profound, powerful and personal issue. It very much depends on the legislative and constitutional proposals that will arise from repealing and replacing the provision.
Repealing the eighth amendment puts more than one cart before the horse because, despite all of the conversations and committees, we have no knowledge of the regulation, legislation or, indeed, agreed boundaries around abortion that may follow. The Supreme Court's deliberation and decision in February on the rights of the unborn child may create even more complications, unanswered questions and dilemmas.
I will now outline my opinion. I understand and have followed all that the Citizens' Assembly has discussed and suggested. I understand and have followed all that the Oireachtas committee has discussed and suggested. I have also heard and read world, international, national, local and personal views. I have listened to doctors, legal experts, statisticians, philosophical and sociological thinkers, politicians and Senators. All of what they had to say was relevant and meaningful but none of them changed my mind. Like St. Thomas a Becket, I believe it is very difficult to do the right thing for the right reasons. Nowhere has this become more evident than around the issue of abortion.
The core of my opinion is as follows. I have complete and absolute trust in the judgment of women to make the right decision if and when they are faced with such a profound choice, and to live with that decision. They should be able to do so within the law and, therefore, I think abortion should be available without restriction up to 12 weeks. Whatever a woman's decision, I believe that it will be made in good faith, for good reason and, most important, by a living adult human being.
I did not expect Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell's speech to be so long.
I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well with the work that is ahead in terms of the referendum that, hopefully, will be in May or June. I thank all of my colleagues here for their kind words. They mean a lot to me. I have had immense support from my own party and support from across the Houses, which is heartwarming and appreciated.
Being Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution has been the biggest privilege of my political career. I am grateful to the Taoiseach for having the courage to appoint me because I was quite green when it came to such a post. He was very fair to appoint me as Chair and I am grateful to him for doing so.
I want to acknowledge my senatorial colleagues as follows: Senator Mullen; Senator Ruane who was Vice-Chair and extremely supportive at all times; Senator Buttimer whose counsel I relied on and who was fantastic to me; Senator Gavan was equally supportive and a wonderful colleague on the committee; and Senator Ned O'Sullivan who is not here today was a very supportive and constructive member of the committee. The committee did a large volume of work in a relatively short period. Many people thought that we would not attain the result that we did. I am very proud of every member of the committee - every one of them - because we worked well together. We achieved our targets in terms of the timescale and getting the work done.
I want to pay tribute to the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who proposed the process. Both he and the process were much maligned by extremes on both sides, particularly by the repeal side. It was an excellent choice of process-----
-----for such an emotive and politically challenging issue.
I commend the current Taoiseach, and I promise that I will not make political comments after this part. In a party like Fine Gael this issue is very difficult but he kept it front and centre. That fact must be acknowledged; I am sorry I am one doing it but it must be said.
The committee was made up of a representative group of politicians from these Houses. It was not biased-----
-----at any time and in any way that we conducted our business. It is easy to say that something was biased. It is quite a challenge to reject such an allegation on an ongoing basis because once one has to explain one has lost. The allegation resonated and became quite difficult to withstand at times. All of us decided what witnesses to call and I, as Chair, did not decide to call any witness. It is very difficult to get a medical practitioner in this country to attend a committee of these Houses and tell us that the status quoshould be maintained. That is the reality.
Everybody present is au faitwith the contents of the report and I hope they will not mind my going over, from a factual point of view, how we arrived at our decision. I will give my opinion of how we arrived at our decision. We all held varying views on every side of the matter. There was a view out there that we were all of the one view going in and we all came out with the one view. That is absolutely not the case. Every party had different views within it and every individual on the committee had different views. The committee was a composite of a variety of views.It might be helpful to explain how we came to our decisions in four key areas. On the need to hold a referendum on Article 40.3.3°, we made this decision on the conclusion of module 1. This very fact was misrepresented, misunderstood and tactically used by certain members to show bias on behalf of the committee, which was inaccurate. The decision was made on the basis of the following: the evidence from the Citizens' Assembly, which was clear that the issue needed to be addressed by the people after many years of avoidance; the evidence of the constitutional experts, which showed that legislation that went beyond the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was not possible under Article 40.3.3°; the findings of the UN in the Mellet and Whelan cases; and the stated position of the Government that there would be a referendum, as articulated on numerous occasions by the Taoiseach. We took that decision on those grounds.
The second of the four points I would like to make is on the repeal simpliciternature of the referendum. The committee made decisions on the type of referendum needed after hearing all of the evidence in modules 1, 2 and 3. We took account of a number of matters. We agreed with the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly that the issue of the regulation of the termination of pregnancy needed to be taken out of the Constitution and be dealt with by way of legislation. Our legal advisor presented us with six options to change the Constitution, which gave varying degrees of legal certainty and of flexibility to change the law in the future. Repeal simplicitergave the highest level of certainty and flexibility. We rejected the option favoured by the assembly, which was a replacement of Article 40.3.3° to give exclusive power to the Oireachtas, as it had the potential to remove the supervisory jurisdiction of the court and we felt that oversight by the courts is a crucial facet of our democracy. I would welcome clarity from the Minister because certain Members have brought up the issue of a potential replacement of the eighth amendment. If he could bring any clarity to bear on that question I would be grateful.
The third point is on the provisions that should be incorporated in new legislation on the termination of pregnancy. This was covered by the Citizens' Assembly under a variety of different headings. The strong cross-political support on the risk to the health of women was based on the expert medical evidence which showed that, in many cases, it is not easy to draw a line between the risk to life and the risk to health. The evidence showed that our medical practitioners feel poorly served by the current laws in that they may delay acting until a woman becomes so sick that her life is at risk. That is not a good situation for doctors or, indeed, patients and their families. We were told that our restrictive laws make us an outlier in the developed world. The fact that women have to travel means that terminations are taking place later in the gestational cycle. At that stage they require surgical rather than medical terminations which are more invasive and have a greater potential for harm. I know that everyone present knows this, but I really want it on the record that this is how we came to our decision. The issue is a matter of clinical judgment for medical professionals in consultation with the pregnant woman and her partner or spouse, if appropriate.
The committee accepted that it should be lawful to terminate a pregnancy where a female becomes pregnant as a result of rape or incest. This is a standard provision in most developed countries. We did not agree with the assembly that a termination could take place up to 22 weeks. It can be difficult to prove that a rape occurred without going through a lengthy prosecution process and the committee agreed that we should avoid any form of verification as this could result in further trauma for the victim. Many Members have already spoken about that today. We agreed to a general provision allowing termination up to 12 weeks in view of the complexities involved in legislating for rape and incest.
Many Senators have spoken about fatal foetal abnormalities. The evidence from parents who either travelled or were forced to carry their dead baby to term was difficult and shocking, and it elucidated a society that was cold to the suffering of those families. The vast majority of members wanted to see change in this area. The evidence showed that current laws lack compassion for families who receive dreadful news with regard to much-wanted pregnancies. The evidence also showed that those who wanted termination in such circumstances and who travelled endured split health care, which is blatantly discriminatory.
The joint committee rejected non-fatal foetal abnormality as a valid ground for termination. We recognise the burden that this places on families in such circumstances, however it was felt that these issues were best addressed by way of enhanced social services. Issues around stigmatisation of people with disabilities and misinformation about the policies of other states with regard to Down's syndrome in particular were to the fore in committee members' minds.
On socioeconomic issues and having no restriction as to reason, the committee rejected the idea that terminations under socioeconomic grounds should be lawful beyond 12 weeks. We had to take account of the need to provide reproductive health care for women in Ireland and, in particular, those who have a crisis pregnancy and who feel that a termination is the only solution. Just to let the Leas-Chathaoirleach know, I will be at least another two minutes.
On socioeconomic issues and having no restriction as to reason, the committee rejected the idea that terminations under socioeconomic grounds should be lawful beyond 12 weeks. We had to take account of the need to provide reproductive health care for women in Ireland and, in particular, those who have a crisis pregnancy and where they feel that a termination is the only solution. In particular, we were mindful of the 3,500 women who travel abroad annually to have a termination in a clinic or hospital, mainly in the UK; the increasing number of women who are procuring abortion pills via the Internet, about which many Members have already spoken; and the plight of women facing a crisis pregnancy who could not afford to travel or who could not travel because of their immigration status.
In 1983, when the eighth amendment was put in place, it was inconceivable to have a medical termination which could be carried out mainly through a GP-led service. The vast majority of terminations in developed societies take place in the first ten to 12 weeks of pregnancy. The fact that we do not have that service available here to Irish women means that they face either travelling abroad for late-term terminations or that they risk their health by taking abortion pills at home without supervision.
The fourth point is, in my view and as Senator Kelleher has said, the most important part of our report. It is on the ancillary services which arose from the recommendations. The main focus of our deliberations in this area were decriminalisation, better availability of contraception, an overhaul of sex education and better counselling and obstetric care. We recommended decriminalisation because of the chill factor which can inhibit clinical judgment when dealing with very sick pregnant women, the chill factor which could prevent a woman from seeking medical help after procuring an abortion pill illegally online, and the findings of the UN in the Mellet case which found that her suffering was aggravated by the shame and stigma associated with criminalisation.
We recommended that one way of reducing the incidence of crisis pregnancy was to ensure that we have comprehensive availability of contraception. This seems to be a complete no-brainer and I was extremely pleased that the Department of Health's response to this element of our report was so positive. This does not get the attention of the media because it is not about 12 weeks or anything but it is so important. It emerged in evidence that there was a cost-factor involved, especially for long-acting reversible contraceptive methods, which meant that some women were using less effective methods, especially those who are just over the income limits that would allow them to qualify for a medical card. We recommended that a range of contraception should be made available free of charge to people who need it. I am letting the Minister know that this is not going to go away.
-----and there is no consistency in terms of the delivery of sex education in schools across the country. We need a far more mature approach to this as a society and in schools. I will not be much longer. There is an urgent need to bring sex education into the 21st century.
I am not going to speak about counselling and obstetric care. It is obviously very important as well. I want to address just a few other small points before I conclude. Senator Swanick made a very good point with regard to GP practices. I urge the Minister to consult with the medics when it comes to this because many GPs feel very overworked as it is with the free care of the under-sixes and so on. It is very important that there would be consultation on this with GPs in particular.The Senator also mentioned how people were being labelled in this debate. What is the pro-life versus pro-choice thing about now? It does not make any sense when one sits in committee and hears the evidence. It is not about the polarised sides of the arguments.
Senator Ruane raised the issue of education, which is a crucial point. Those Oireachtas Members who were on the committee are now somewhat overeducated on this issue but other Members need to really engage with the evidence we heard because it is vital that people understand why we came to the decision we came to. Senator Bacik made a good point about the Attorney General and things that are being considered. She spoke of how dangerous replacing the eighth amendment would be in terms of the uncertainty that would arise.
Senator Kelleher's personal story was very touching. She allowed Senator Ruane to stay on the committee and that was generous of her. Indeed, all the committee members took a very fair approach to that. Senator Mullen is not here because he takes an àla carteapproach here like he did on the committee. He was allowed more time than anyone else in the committee but he still says not enough time was given. He had double, if not triple, the time anyone else had to speak. He spoke about the atmosphere being chilly towards certain minorities but I was a minority as Chair. I got some chilly-----
I am nearly finished. I thought Senator Craughwell's speech was excellent and I agree with his point about the US. The US needs to stay out of this. I think the term "pro-life" probably came from the US and we adopted it very readily but it has no place in the debate. We do no justice to the women of this country by continuing to allow this debate to be so polarised. The debate needs to be respectful and also needs to be considered and factual. We are leaders and we need to lead in our approach. We can make sure this debate is respectful. No politician will decide this issue. We will decide with everyone else but we will do our legislative duty by facilitating a vote of the Irish people after many years of waiting for it. I wish the Minister good luck with his work over the next few months.
I will be a lot quicker. Hard decisions have to be made but this is a matter for individuals as everyone has their own story. I will give mine. I had my first child at 22 weeks. She weighed only 3 lb and then lost 8 oz to weigh just 2 lb 3 oz. She was quite strong and fought hard and today she is a nurse and a healthy person. This was a baby I gave birth to 30 years ago who, for unknown reasons, was premature and I carried three healthy full-time babies after that. I remember thinking how grateful I would be if she survived and I am grateful. That is my story and there are more cases like mine.
Down's syndrome has been addressed. I have a nephew, who is also my godson, with Down's syndrome. He has completed our family life and we do not have any event at which he is not present. My mother has been given a totally new lease of life since he was born because he is the centre of our world and we are lucky to have him. I can speak for premature children and those who have Down's syndrome because they are in my family.
I believe this is a personal issue. Women have come into my clinics who have had abortions through no fault of their own and I have listened to their story. I am not judge and jury and will never be but I was very surprised with the 12-week recommendation. I will never judge anyone or tell them what they did was wrong but I have my own feelings on this. I believe there will be a referendum and that the women of Ireland want one. I will be respectful of their choices. As a democracy, we need to let the people of Ireland have their choice. Nevertheless, there are a lot of good stories out there, such as mine, of children who have Down's syndrome or other disabilities and we cannot forget them. There have been horrific stories of people who are in a place that, through no fault of their own, they do not mean to be in and they have to make a decision they do not want to make. We have to look at every decision and I am glad to give my story to the House. It is a true story and I am proud to say my daughter is healthy and well.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate but the two Houses are debating this important issue at the same time. I have been thinking about what I want to say for many weeks and I spoke in the Dáil on the subject but I now must see if I have a second contribution within me as it is an emotional issue. It is deeply sensitive and complex and an issue with which an awful lot of us have struggled and grappled. We have tried to make sense of it and to follow the evidence in order to come forward with what we believe is the way forward.
I agree with Senator Murnane O'Connor about being judge and jury on this as it is a deeply personal decision. I note the committee looked at the area of disability and specifically excluded it as grounds for a termination and while I appreciate the Senator's concern, our Oireachtas colleagues differentiated themselves from the work of the Citizens' Assembly in this regard.
It is important that this debate is respectful and, from what I have seen of the debates in both Houses this evening, I am genuinely encouraged on that score. Many people will have been watching and waiting to see who would use the first offensive term towards somebody else but they will not have seen anything of that nature today.
To the best of my knowledge it did not happen in the Dáil either. That should encourage us because this was not the way it was when this issue was discussed in the past. I was not born in 1983 but I have been reading a lot about it lately. In the debate of that time the issue seems, bizarrely, to have been considered more of a justice than a health issue. In the transcript of the debates there is very little reference to the impact of the eighth amendment on the health care of women.
It was. It was looked at from the point of view of criminal justice. We now find ourselves in a very different place. I genuinely love this country, as I think we all do, and we are all very proud of it but I am ashamed of how it has treated women, particularly pregnant women. Others have referenced the Magdalen laundries, mother and baby homes and the Kerry babies case, which are all different but all connected because they all relate to how we treated pregnant women.It is a terribly tragic and upsetting irony that, in 1984, 15 year old Ann Lovett died beneath a statue of Our Lady at a religious grotto having given birth. Her body was found by her schoolmates. We have a problem here with how we have treated women and we must look at how we address it. We are all looking at it and trying to do our best. I appreciate very much that there will be different perspectives. We should not get into a space of name-calling or stereotyping each other because that has led to paralysis. It has led, quite frankly, to an inability on the part of the nation to think about this issue with clarity and to follow the evidence. We have never had that opportunity. Every time we try to discuss it, the debate is reduced to two people on radio, often men, shouting and roaring at each other and calling each other names. We have to try to do better.
Members of Seanad and Dáil Éireann who served on the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution have done a real service to all of us in the Oireachtas and to the Irish people. I join many others in commending Senator Noone on her leadership of the committee. It was a very complex task and there were many commentators and politicians who were not sure the committee would ever get to the final report it produced. However, it did get there. Senator Noone steered the committee in a dignified, balanced, fair and impartial way. I should not and do not intend to misrepresent in any way the findings of the committee, which were not unanimous. There were people on the committee who dissented as was their right. We should respect that right. However, there was a majority view and that is the basis on which we should, as an Oireachtas, proceed.
I heard Senator Ó Donnghaile make the point very honestly about people changing their views. I changed my view. To those on Twitter who are going to tweet about how I changed my view as though I should be somewhat embarrassed, I note that it will not work. I have spoken about this very openly. I changed my view, not on a whim, but by listening to women, doctors and the reality of abortion in this country. It is not just a reality in the way it used to be. It used to be the reality that we would export challenging situations. In 2016, 3,265 women left our shores and went to Britain for abortions. Many of them were married and had other children. There was a wide spectrum of ages, from teenagers to women in their 40s. I set out in the Dáil only a few hours ago that every single county in Ireland saw women leave to go to the UK for an abortion in 2016 and listed the statistics. This is not an urban-rural issue; it affects every part of the country. It is not only that. As well as what has been going on for decades and generations whereby up to 170,000 women and probably more travelled have abroad for abortions since 1980s, we now have the reality of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. As such, abortion is legal in this country in limited circumstances.
People are entitled to their own opinions but they are not entitled to their own facts. I remember sitting in the Seanad during the committee hearings chaired very ably by Senator Buttimer and being told, in an awful phrase, that if we passed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, as it then was, the floodgates would open. Anyone who reads the transcripts will see that some Senators and Deputies asserted that if the legislation was passed, women would fake threats to their lives to access terminations. That was said or the inference was certainly made. We publish annual reports which show that simply has not happened. The numbers stayed static. Abortion is legal in those circumstances. As such, it is people going broad, people under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act and, in what is now a third reality, the abortion pill is available. This is something the committee considered in great detail and I have read the evidence and testimony given to it in that regard. Yet again, women are being left lonely and isolated but this time without having to leave the country. This time, it is where they log onto a computer, order a pill, wait for it to be delivered in the post and take it in the privacy of their bedroom or wherever else. It is hard to put accurate figures on this because it is an illegal pill in this country, but the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecologypublished research last October which showed a 62% increase in the number of Irish women enquiring about the pill from one online provider alone between 2010 and 2015. The research showed well over 1,000 women in Ireland accessing the pill in one year.
This debate cannot be reduced to one which is just about abortion and whether one views it as right or wrong, because that is a matter for people's consciences. This debate is about the reality of abortion for Irish women and how we ensure we support women who make that deeply difficult decision. I am really pleased to have heard so many people acknowledge tonight that it is a deeply difficult decision. When I hear terms like "abortion on demand", it makes me cringe. Women are not going around demanding abortions. They are agonising over deeply personal, private and difficult decisions. Pregnancy is a very happy occasion, thankfully, for many women and their partners in this country, but for some women it is a terrifying experience. For some women, it is a tragic experience. We have all heard from many of those women in recent years. There is a reality here which we will have to work together as an Oireachtas to address. My view is that we cannot address it as long as the eighth amendment remains in the Constitution. That is why we must allow the people of Ireland to have their say and recognise those, not just of my age but under the age of about 50, who have never had a say on the substantive issue of the eighth amendment.
Should the Government make a decision and should the Oireachtas facilitate the passage of the constitutional amendment legislation, we will be in a position this year to put a question to the people. It is my preference that we put that question in the month of May for a whole lot of practical reasons. Obviously, that is a matter for the Government to decide. I note that Senator Noone asked what form the question will take. I have been very clear so there should be no ambiguity; in my view the eighth amendment should go. That is a decision for the Irish people and only they can make it. The question should facilitate the Irish people to have the opportunity to remove the eighth amendment. As a Government, however, we must obtain legal advice from the Attorney General as to how best to make that a legal reality. The committee obtained its legal advice and had one view. The Citizens' Assembly obtained legal advice and had a different view. The Government will also obtain legal advice. As Minister for Health, my aim will be to bring a proposal to the Government, the Oireachtas and then the people which gives them an opportunity to remove the eighth amendment. How we do that legally is a matter for greater minds than mine and it is something the Government will be working through.
I turn to the ancillary recommendations. Everyone in the House, regardless of his or her view on the eighth amendment or abortion and terminations, wants to see us do better by women in crisis pregnancy situations. Everyone wants to see us do better by women in terms of our maternity services also. I was struck when I read the committee's report that it focused a great deal on that. I am glad the Chairman made the point. I did not hear Senator Kelleher's contribution, but I understand she referred to the importance of it as well, as did many others. This is not a report that says the only thing the State should do for women in crisis pregnancies is legalise terminations; far from it. Of course, that is what is going to get the media and political attention because, let us be honest, it is an important issue and a significant policy proposal. However, the report also talks about the need to reduce the incidence of crisis pregnancy and support every woman from every part of the country to have access to the best possible maternity services.
I want the House and the Irish people to know that my Department is working actively on how to deliver on those ancillary recommendations. I contend that we are already delivering on some. We have the first ever - it is incredible that this is the case - national maternity strategy which will bring us to a much better place. We have established the women-and-infants health programme in the HSE and a dedicated programme office to drive the delivery of maternity services. We have put in place the first ever HIQA standards on maternity care and we have new HSE bereavement standards for anyone who has had pregnancy loss, regardless of how that loss has come about. I take very seriously the report's other recommendations on contraception, sex education and access to anomaly scans. We have significant plans to enhance access to anomaly scans in the HSE service plan this year. We have set up a working group in the Department, which is chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, and we are working our way through the recommendations. That must be part of the Government's comprehensive response to the report.After multiple referendums, multiple court cases, multiple Private Members' Bills in this House and the other House, multiple debates, column inches, committee hearings and Citizens' Assembly hearings, we will be in a position finally to give the Irish people their chance to have a say on the issue. As others have said, regardless of their views, as democrats it is very important that we let the people of Ireland have their say on the issue and that we respect their decision. We must lead on facilitating a respectful, informed debate and I think tonight is a good start to that.