Monday, 24 May 2021
Organisation of Working Time (Reproductive Health Related Leave) Bill 2021: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am sharing time with my seconder, Senator Sherlock. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House and thank him for coming to debate the Bill. I also thank colleagues on all sides of the House who have expressed such strong support for this important Bill. I really appreciate it, and I speak on behalf of Senator Sherlock and all the Labour Party Senators when I say how much we welcome that cross-party support. I understand the Government has indicated it will not oppose the passage of the Bill on Second Stage. We are very appreciative of that and many people watching the debate, who may have been affected by the issues we are going to discuss, will really appreciate it too. We look forward to working with the Minister of State and his colleagues in government to make the Bill a reality and bring its provisions into law. I welcome, in particular, my colleague Senator Norris, who has long been a champion of women's reproductive health. I thank him, along with all the other Senators who intend to speak to the Bill.
In 2019, long before Covid had arisen, I was approached by my Labour Party colleague Councillor Alison Gilliland, who is also an official of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO. She approached me because several members of the INTO had expressed concern about having to take time off work to undergo in vitrofertilisation, IVF, treatment or other reproductive treatments, or to take time off work having suffered an early miscarriage, and had not been able to acknowledge that nor had any formal recognition of that in the workplace. A survey the INTO carried out in 2019 found that 60% of respondents had faced reproductive health difficulties in their workplaces. This was clearly an issue for its members. They passed a motion at their annual conference and approached me and my Labour Party colleagues to seek assistance in introducing this measure into law.
We became conscious that there was a glaring absence in our statutory leave laws and workplace protection laws in that for women who suffer the grief of an early miscarriage, or any women or men who have to take time off work to access IVF or other fertility treatments, there is no provision for leave in law. Indeed, they currently have to take annual leave, sick leave or unpaid days in order to attend appointments or to recover physically and emotionally from an early miscarriage. Some women members of the INTO reported having returned to work immediately after an early miscarriage because they had no entitlement to leave.
Having worked on the Bill for some time, on 2 March this year my fellow Labour Party Senators and I published legislation to provide statutory leave to those suffering early miscarriage or needing time off for IVF treatment. The structure we used was to amend the Organisation of Working Time Act and use that statutory framework. I am conscious that we could have gone down a different route and used the employment equality legislation or the maternity protection legislation, but we believed this was the appropriate framework. Nevertheless, we are happy to work with the Government at a later stage if a more appropriate legislative framework is found. We just want some mechanism for employees to be able to take leave and get formal recognition in the workplace.
This is not a uniquely Irish issue. As it happens, in late March this year, the Labour Party of New Zealand, under Jacinda Ardern, passed very similar legislation to provide for leave for employees who have suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth. The debate around our Bill, and internationally around the New Zealand law, has ignited a conversation about the need to face up to the complexity of fertility and reproductive health issues, and the need for the State to provide practical recognition for the role it plays in employees’ lives. Since we published the Bill, my Labour Party colleagues and I have been contacted by many women and couples who have endured the grief and bereavement of early miscarriage, often in silence, or who have gone through multiple cycles of IVF and fertility treatment, and who have felt that there was nobody to whom they could turn within the workplace and no formal space in our law for their grief to be recognised.
It has been heartbreaking to hear some of the stories. On Wednesday evening last, we organised a Labour Party Instagram Live event attended by individuals including Síle Seoige, the well-known broadcaster, and Clodagh O'Hagan, who has spoken about her positive experience in the workplace. Síle spoke about her personal experience of suffering miscarriage and having to go straight back to work afterwards, without any formal acknowledgment. We also heard from Claire Cullen-Delsol of the Termination for Medical Reasons group about the trauma of many of its members in suffering pregnancy loss and, again, having no formal recognition of that in the workplace. We heard from all the speakers how important it is that their experiences be given recognition in our law. Clodagh O'Hagan's experience with a very supportive employer was, for us, an indication of what could be done, a positive story of good practice where an employer was understanding and voluntarily provided her with time off.
If enacted, the Bill will provide women with up to 20 days' leave for early miscarriage and give an entitlement to all employees of up to ten days' leave for access to reproductive healthcare treatment, such as IVF. We have been working since the publication of the Bill to ensure it has cross-party support and I again thank all the colleagues who have expressed their support for it. We have also been contacted by individuals and groups on a number of related issues, which might well be the subject of amendments at later Stages of the debate on the Bill.For example, we have been approached about the need to introduce an opt-in scheme to provide recognition for stillborn babies, who are not covered by the current legislation. Other issues that were raised with us include the need for greater understanding for women experiencing health difficulties due to menopause. This has been a subject of immense debate and discussion on Joe Duffy's "Liveline" show in recent weeks. For me and others of my age, it is a very pertinent subject and, again, one about which very little has been spoken until now. For a long time there has been a culture of silence that many women have talked about with us since we published the Bill, which has extended to so many facets of women's health, including abortion, periods or menstruation, endometriosis and all sorts of conditions and women's experiences that to us are normal and regular parts of our lives, but that had not been discussed in the public forum until recently. We see this Bill as being very much part of the spectrum of measures to try to break the taboo and culture of silence. It is anticipated therefore that passing this simple Bill will help to break the culture of silence and fulfil a secondary function of destigmatising pregnancy and fertility treatment in the workplace and in society. So many people currently suffer in silence, particularly women, because they do not believe the support is there for them.
Before I hand over to my colleague, Senator Sherlock, I will outline the broader context we should all remember, which is that approximately 14,000 women in Ireland suffer a miscarriage each year. That is why I say it is almost a normal experience or certainly a very frequent one, sadly, for many women. More than one in five pregnancies ends in a miscarriage. Between one in four and one in six couples encounters difficulty in becoming pregnant. The success rate for patients at certain IVF clinics can be very low. The majority of IVF clinics in Ireland are very expensive, costing between €4,500 and €5,000 per cycle. We are very conscious of the immense burden on so many people undergoing what some women describe to me as their fertility journey. We welcome the immense support for this Bill on a cross-party basis and the Government's support. We look forward to it passing through Second Stage and to working with the Minister of State, Deputy English, and colleagues to make it a reality.
I thank the Minister of State very much for coming to the Chamber this evening. I am very proud that my party, the Labour Party, is bringing forward this Bill, which seeks to introduce paid leave for those suffering early miscarriage or those who are going through fertility treatment. I am delighted to second the Bill.
I pay particular tribute to my colleague, Senator Bacik, for spearheading this legislation. It is one of many in the area of women's rights as workers, women's health and human rights that she has introduced since becoming a Senator. Great credit must also go to her colleague, Councillor Alison Gilliland, and the INTO, for speaking out about these issues and prompting us to introduce the Bill.
Many women are looking on at this debate tonight who cannot bring themselves to talk openly about what they are going through right now or what they have gone through in the past. We stand with them. Many of us in the Chamber tonight have been in those shoes and have gone through that heartache. For those of us who have been through a miscarriage or fertility treatment, we know the secrecy, sadness and pressure to keep things looking normal on the outside even if we are falling apart inside. We also know that very raw desire for privacy at a time when a woman can feel so vulnerable. We want to protect ourselves in a world where so many others can seemingly so easily get pregnant and stay pregnant and we want to prevent others from talking about us in piteous tones.
The experience of miscarriage is a hugely overwhelming one for the women who go through it. Notwithstanding all our knowledge about the statistics and knowing in advance that it can so easily happen, there is a crushing feeling of inadequacy and intense sadness for those who find out that they have fertility issues and that one of the most natural things in the world – to be able to make a baby – is somehow out of reach. Our Bill is to say to them, and to those other women who have decided to undertake fertility treatment alone so that they can have a baby, that in whatever circumstances they find themselves, it is time that we afforded them dignity and empathy in those situations. In our workplaces, the time has come to recognise, respect and accommodate what they are going through in a dignified manner, if that is what they want and if they need to take off time to deal with what is going on in their life that they can get it, that the State will provide all workers in those situations with the provision of paid leave. This is not a sickness and workers should not have to hide behind annual leave or to be forced to take it. Our call is that workers are respected and recognised for what they are going through. Reproductive health leave must be recognised as a worker's right.
At the heart of this Labour Party Bill is a demand for flexibility and the right to be accommodated when going through an early miscarriage or fertility treatment. Our Bill calls for 20 days paid leave for those suffering early miscarriage and ten days leave for those undergoing fertility treatments. It is important to understand what a woman has to go through if she is undertaking IVF or intracytoplasmic sperm injection, ICSI. It is not a case of an initial assessment and then a once-off procedure. It is a very delicate balancing act of inducing the ovaries through self-medicated, injected medication that is only possible at certain times of the month, being monitored over at least four scans and then, if all goes smoothly, egg collection can take place under anaesthetic. More time is then required before moving to an embryo transfer. All of that can take place over six to eight appointments, if it goes smoothly, or in the experience of so many, it can take many weeks and months.
If we put ourselves in the shoes of a teacher, health professional or retail worker, anybody working in a customer-fronting or client-fronted service, it is not possible to start work two hours later than normal after a woman has gone for her early morning scan; neither is it feasible to disappear for two or three hours in the middle of the day, time that could perhaps be made up later if one was in another job. Whatever one's workplace or role, the need for any worker to attend regular scans and blood tests is all part and parcel of fertility treatment and flexibility and understanding is required on the part of an employer. Where women have felt that they could speak up, some employers have been magnificent, but many other women feel they cannot. We very much hope that bringing forward this Bill will enable women to find their voice and say that they are going through this process and that they need understanding.
I hope this Bill is the first of a series of steps that need to be taken in supporting assisted reproductive technology and therapies and State-support for fertility treatment in this country. For six years we have had commitments by parties in government to introduce State support for IVF. I will never forget February 2016 when Fine Gael said it would introduce IVF if re-elected. That is not to have a go at Fine Gael or any other party, but I recall that day so well because my heart soared, as I know many couples and women who want to access the treatment but simply cannot because of the enormous cost. Senator Bacik talked about the cost, which can go as high as €10,000. I was one of the lucky ones: we managed to move heaven and earth so that I could have my shot and it eventually worked, but for many others there is the heartache of knowing that help is possible, as there have been incredible advances in science and medicine to help women become pregnant or freeze their eggs, but that help is out of reach because of the cost. Such help was not available to previous generations and it is available now, but only for those who go private. What is all the more galling is that medication for fertility treatment is covered under the drugs payment scheme and one can get tax relief for it, but if one cannot get in the door of a fertility clinic because of the cost of treatment then one is not going anywhere. Six years on from the initial commitment I accept there has been some little progress in terms of talk of regional hubs and funding, but we are not there yet. Ireland is the only EU country that does not have supports in place for fertility treatment. I thank the Government for its support on this Bill tonight. It means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to the other women who are looking in on the debate.We ask that the Government move speedily on this because we cannot keep women and couples waiting. Our Bill is a very small step. Much more is needed and I have set out some asks in that regard.
How very kind of the Cathaoirleach. I greatly appreciate it. I pay tribute to my good friend and colleague, Senator Bacik. She has been involved in issues of human rights over many years. She has been particularly involved in women's rights, although not exclusively. There is nothing narrow about Ivana. I am very glad the Bill has been accepted by Government. It is a very positive move and shows the way in which Seanad Éireann, and the Oireachtas generally, can collaborate with Government. Several of my close friends have endured this situation, which is extraordinarily traumatic. As a man, I cannot imagine what it must be like to be pregnant for several months and to look forward to this joyful occasion only to find that, at the end, there is a dead baby. It must be really shocking.
The Bill is important in the context of the Irish culture. We talk so often about cherishing the children of the nation equally. This is an opportunity for us to do so. It has already been stated, possibly by Senator Bacik, that 14,000 women in Ireland have a miscarriage every year. That is a very large number and should give us pause for thought. I believe it was on 21 March 2021 that the New Zealand Parliament passed legislation allowing paid bereavement leave for workers who miscarry a pregnancy. Who can deny that a miscarriage is a bereavement? Of course it is.
The Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO, has publicly welcomed the publication of the Bill. As Senator Bacik has acknowledged, the Bill itself, to a certain extent, stems from the prodding of the INTO. We in this House have cause to remember with great affection and respect Joe O'Toole, who was head of the INTO for some years.
It is also important to hear the human voice behind these matters. I have selected a couple of letters from women who have been affected by this issue. The first says:
During IVF treatment I travelled to Dublin leaving at 5am to have early appointment so that I would be back in work for 10am. Thankfully I was lucky but the huge amount of unnecessary stress I put on myself, in hindsight, was ridiculous.
It is appalling that someone had to get up at 5 a.m. to travel to Dublin. The next letter says:
I didn’t want to take school days but when you’re dealing with fertility it becomes cycle dependent. In the end I had to tell my principal because I couldn’t deal with the stress and stress just makes the situation worse.
A third letter reads:
I do not have a permanent job and would feel that telling my principal that I was going for fertility treatment would stand against me in any future job interviews. I find this quite stressful as I would much rather be upfront about why I need the time off.
I had to go to the UK for an operation because there was no expert in Ireland to operate on me. I had to be off work longer to recover but I had to go back sooner than I wished because I couldn’t afford to go unpaid anymore.
Could there be a better illustration of the absolute necessity for financial support for women in this situation? The final extract I will read says:
I’m so worried about using a lot of sick days with my IVF. Its already a nightmare to have to go through IVF. This is adding to it. I will be waiting until July to try another round of it as afraid of sick days, but my husband worried we are letting precious months slip by.
That is the thing; one is fighting against the clock. I commend Senator Bacik on introducing this very important legislation. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his courtesy.
Not at all. I welcome this topic here this evening. It is an issue I raised myself last year and one I certainly want to see Government advance. It is also welcome that the Government is not opposing the Bill.
For too long families have suffered in silence, being forced to use personal leave as they come to grips with a tragedy. Research suggests one in four women has suffered a miscarriage and the vast majority of these tend to happen in the early stages, before the 24-week mark which is currently the point from which leave is provided for by legislation in Ireland and many other countries. We also know, as two Senators have already pointed out, that up to 14,000 women a year suffer a miscarriage in Ireland, which is frightening. The current legislation which regards the 24-week point as a landmark in Ireland and other countries makes little sense. Parents suffer an enormous loss and an enormous tragedy regardless of the week in which it happens. We need to provide for special leave in this tragic scenario so that people are not required to use their ordinary sick leave, which I understand is what currently happens in many cases. The Government supports this but wants to ensure it is done in an appropriate manner.
We also know that as many as one in six heterosexual couples in Ireland encounters fertility difficulties. Again, this is an issue with which people tend to struggle in silence. These issues are clearly common but they are also incredibly challenging and it is important not to lose sight of that.
The Government says that the introduction of any additional form of compassionate or family leave would require detailed legislative provisions as to the circumstances in which the leave entitlement would arise and may give rise to consequential amendments to existing legislation. The legislation would need to provide for a detailed definition of certain medical terminology and the circumstances in which leave for reproductive purposes would apply. For example, would the leave only apply to the employee undergoing the treatment? It would also be necessary to clearly define the circumstances in which pregnancy loss or reproductive health interventions are more appropriately matters for sick leave and medical care. Development of legislation of this nature would require significant policy development across a number of Departments.
There are also a number of specific issues with the Private Members' Bill, as drafted. The proposed new section 23(B)(1) to the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 provides that an employee shall be entitled to 20 days' leave with pay from his or her employment "where the employee has miscarried a child having a gestational age of 28 weeks or less". This wording, in its current form, would not appear to provide for leave for both partners, which I presume is the intention. It is also unclear why the Bill proposes leave with pay when a miscarriage occurs before 28 weeks gestation given that the existing entitlements to maternity and paternity leave apply to a stillbirth after 24 weeks. The Bill proposes 20 days paid leave for miscarriage and ten days for reproductive healthcare treatment, which is significant. This would also effectively result in an inconsistency in that a worker would have a right to receive a month’s pay from the employer in the event of a miscarriage but would have no statutory right to pay from an employer for maternity leave in the event of the birth of a child where the State pays for that maternity leave. As the Bill proposes a statutory right to significant levels of paid leave, a full regulatory impact assessment would need to be undertaken before this legislation is progressed.
Having said that, I believe all Members in this House are united in the view that progress needs to be made in these areas during the life of this Government. I suggest we work together to ensure that progress is achieved. Perhaps we could start by inviting the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, into the House to hear his views and the plans of the Department and to create urgency to ensure the actions required are taken within the lifetime of this Government. Finally, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the Chamber and I look forward to his response.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. I thank Senator Bacik for bringing this Bill before the House tonight and for her contribution.
It is staggering that 14,000 women every year suffer from miscarriage. Everyone knows someone who has gone through it and normally the person is a family member. The only reason we know she is a family member is because if it is not a family member, we do not necessarily talk about it. It could be a mother or sister. Perhaps one of the advantages of this Bill, or one like it, coming through is the opportunity for people to speak out about their experiences. While I touch on that, I wish to acknowledge the contribution of Senator Sherlock. We find the most empowering contributions in the Chamber are normally about personal experiences. I hope the contribution Senator Sherlock made encourages more people to speak up and speak out about their experiences.
There has been much talk and debate in recent weeks since the Parliament of New Zealand passed the Holidays (Bereavement Leave for Miscarriage) Amendment (No. 2) Bill 2021 in March, providing an entitlement to mothers and their partners of three days of paid leave following a miscarriage or stillbirth. This entitlement is an extension of the existing statutory bereavement leave. New Zealand now provides three days' leave for women and their partners who lose a baby at any stage in pregnancy. Prospective parents will also be eligible if the mother of the baby they were hoping to adopt suffers a miscarriage. This new law mandating three days of paid bereavement leave is distinct from sick leave or maternity leave.
It is important to allow the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, to commission research to examine the context of the provision of the reproductive health leave, including how leave can be best used to support reproductive health needs. The introduction of any additional form of compassionate or family leave would require detailed provisions on the circumstances in which the leave entitlement would arise and may give rise to consequential amendments to existing legislation. It is also necessary to define clearly the circumstances in which pregnancy loss or reproductive health interventions are more appropriately matters for sick leave and medical care. Development of legislation of this nature requires significant policy development across several Departments.
The Bill proposes leave with pay when a miscarriage occurs before eight weeks' gestation. It should be noted that existing entitlements to maternity and paternity leave apply to stillbirth after 24 weeks.
There have been recent reforms for working parents. We have seen an additional three weeks for paid parent's leave to each parent to be taken in the first two years after the birth or adoptive placement of a child. All adopting couples will be able to choose which parent may avail of adoptive leave, including male same-sex couples who were previously precluded due to a legislative anomaly. Parent's leave will be made available to a parent who is not availing of adoptive leave. The extension to the Parent's Leave and Benefits Act 2019, following several recent legislative reforms aimed at enabling working parents to spend more time with their children, was welcome. The other reforms include the extension of unpaid parental leave to 26 weeks for a child under 12 years in 2020, the introduction of two weeks of parent's leave in 2019 and the introduction of two weeks of paternity leave in 2016.
The Family Leave and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2021 removes the presumption that an adoptive mother be the primary caregiver and permits families to choose the best option. It allows greater flexibility to adoptive parents and for the availability of parent's leave to parents not availing of adoptive leave.
This is on the back of a range of measures that have been brought forward while Fine Gael has been in government. In 2011, the Fine Gael-led coalition, along with the Labour Party, established the first Department with responsibility for children, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Following that the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, was established. Free general practitioner care for all children under six years of age was introduced in 2015. In 2016, the then Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, launched the first national maternity strategy. The strategy had four overarching priorities: to improve safety and quality in general and standardise care across all units; to introduce a health and well-being approach to give babies the best start and improve the health of women; to ensure a woman's choice is facilitated to the greatest extent possible; and to improve staffing levels of all facilities in maternity units in communities. A great deal has been done by this Government and previous governments, including when the Labour Party was in government with us.
Something like this or something along this line would add value to what has been introduced previously and would recognise the trauma that 14,000 women and their partners and families go through every year. It is not acceptable that people have to use annual leave in private and not even say why they are taking it. They simply take it and do not talk about it. They do not have the opportunity. They do not have that compassion from the State to be able to take bereavement leave.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I support this Bill. Anything that assists any of our citizens who are in need of assistance, be it financial, social, emotional or spiritual, in respect of their health needs deserves our support. I supported the principle behind the Labour Party period products legislation some months ago and had planned to speak on that, but I had to travel home to Galway for family reasons at the time. We should always extend whatever reasonable resources are available to any citizen who has a particular medical need that he or she is unable to meet.
The Bill reflects and recognises the strong sense of emotional and physical loss that can occur when a pregnancy is lost through miscarriage. Whether it occurs naturally or is induced or procured, the end of a pregnancy is a traumatic event for a woman. Every miscarriage is different and no two women or sets of parents will respond in the same way to their circumstances, but I believe what I have said represents the situation of the great majority.
I strongly support leave being extended to women who require particular treatment related to their pregnancy or after childbirth as envisaged by section 5. The country needs to do far more for expectant mothers and mothers in the early months after they give birth. Their needs have been totally lost in a political system that has consumed itself in recent years debating how to end pregnancies instead of supporting pregnant mothers and their children.
I do not subscribe to the narrative that we have always had a culture of silence around these issues. I grew up in a context where there were no such taboos. We often do down our country. Certainly, cultures change and patterns change, but it can be something of a myth to say we have always had a culture of silence about these things. Many people in our country and abroad were ready to discuss these things.
I have three questions about this legislation. Would it bring about an anomalous inequality? I am asking the question in a constructive spirit. The Bill grants leave to any woman who has a miscarriage up to 28 weeks. I support that; there is no reason to oppose it. Yet, would it be strange for the Oireachtas to legislate for this when we consider that, as the law currently stands and as the law will stand if the Bill is enacted, if a woman's husband, partner or child dies, she is entitled to no statutory leave of any kind. In that instance the woman would be relying purely on the compassion of her employer, the terms of her employment contract or perhaps on the custom and practice in the sector in which she works to get leave on foot of the bereavement. While I welcome the specific proposal I wonder whether it would be strange to introduce statutory compassionate leave for the loss of a pregnancy without also granting such leave for the loss of a spouse, infant child or older child. Is the loss of a pregnancy worse to a mother or a couple than losing a spouse or child? For many women, it would of course be an equal trauma but I do not believe anyone would contend it would cause more grief or physical trauma than the loss of a spouse or child. For that reason perhaps the legislation could be said to jump the gun.
A second issue relates to section 5 which would allow leave where the employee has "miscarried a child having a gestational age of 28 weeks or less". I welcome the wording of that section because it clearly refers to there being a child in the first 28 weeks of pregnancy.It does not state miscarried a clump of cells, blastocyst, piece of tissue or any other offensive term. It states "miscarried a child". This Bill explicitly recognises the humanity of every unborn child up to 28 weeks and we should all welcome that. This is a fact that is unanimously agreed by doctors and scientists alike but it has often been disputed in this House and elsewhere for reasons of political dogma. The word "child" is not once mentioned in the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018. This was a deliberate decision. It was part of and in pursuit of a separate tragic development in our policy and law. I am glad to see it explicitly recognised in section 5 of this Bill that every pregnancy up to 28 weeks is about a child. I welcome that.
However, I am concerned about a potential ambiguity in respect of the word "miscarriage". Broadly speaking, miscarriages happen in two circumstances - those that occur naturally, which are the majority, and those intentionally induced. It is clearly intended that reproductive leave should apply to miscarriages that occur naturally but is it also intended to apply to miscarriages that are medically induced under the 2018 legislation? Both the Bill and the explanatory memorandum were removed from the Oireachtas website over the weekend for some reason so I had to rely on the version of the Bill that was available on the Labour Party website. Senator Bacik's accompanying press release avoids the point but does state several times that the Bill applies to "early miscarriage or other reproductive health-related reasons". I wonder whether it is within the definition of "miscarriage" under section 23B(1)(a) or whether it relates to treatment from a registered medical practitioner in the State and is intended to include abortion. I am very happy to give way to Senator Bacik if she wants to clarify that point.
The point is the Bill is ambiguous to say the least. In certain quarters, the phrase "reproductive health" is generally used in a way that is intended to include termination of pregnancy. Do those cases also qualify for leave under the Bill? If not, what is the reason for that? If so, why is there not greater specificity about it? I would appreciate clarification from the sponsors of the Bill as to what they envisage and what they understand the Bill is providing for in this regard.
From 24 weeks, a miscarriage is regarded as a stillbirth and 26 weeks maternity leave is available along with further unpaid leave but this Bill provides for leave up to 28 weeks. Is there an anomaly in this regard? What happens where it relates to a pregnancy that miscarries or a stillbirth between 24 and 28 weeks? Is it envisaged that both benefits would be availed of? I was wondering whether the reference to 28 weeks instead of 24 was a mistake. I would welcome clarification on that as well.
I thank the Labour Senators for bringing forward this Bill. I have already let them know of my support on this issue. When the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth was here previously, I said that I would be supportive. I must disagree with Senator Mullen. I think there is a taboo around women's healthcare. The life of a woman is wonderfully diverse and changes much more than the life of a man and we do not recognise that in our workforce. We do not really take on board the fact that 50% of the workforce does have that variety and that different life course. This means that we must have legislation that reflects that. I have stood up here previously in respect of the menopause. I believe there are opportunities to ensure that people can take leave and do not have to call it sick leave either because it is not necessarily that one is being sick.
To go back to the issue, which Senator Mullen may have diverted us from, I know very few women who have not been through either problems with conceiving or have not had miscarriages and most people are silent on it. There is a culture where people are quiet for the first 12 to 14 weeks waiting to see how it goes. This is because we are all waiting to see whether this life we envisage and expect for ourselves follows through. This is because we know. We did not need any statistics to tell us it is one in five. It is probably closer to one in four. We do not need statistics to tell us it is the experience of women. The women with whom I speak do not tell their employers that they have suffered a miscarriage and they do not necessarily tell their doctors either. In some cases, it is incredibly painful and women are left to their own devices. I was thinking about force majeureleave and how the partner of a person going through miscarriage could be entitled to three days leave in certain circumstances but the person going through the physical experience of miscarriage is not entitled to leave so it does need to be dealt with. That is correct not in every case but certainly in some cases. The woman is using her entitlement to sick days and her partner may not be in certain circumstances.
I welcome the fact that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is considering carrying out research because there are a number of other issues we need to examine. Some Senators have spoken about the anomalies in this legislation, which I am sure are recognised, such as whether it is 24 or 28 weeks but one way or another, it must still be dealt with. India and New Zealand provide leave but just because they are the only countries that have it does not mean that it is the wrong thing for every country in the world. This is one situation where we do not have to wait to be called out but can step up to the mark and really give women the support they need. If one looks at the list of the type of leave, there are other circumstances. Deputy Costello raised the issue of leave for foster parents so this must be looked into. We need a sense of equality at the end of this. As has been outlined by Senator Ahearn, the Minister has addressed anomalies. We need to make sure we have legislation that does not have those anomalies because everyone needs to be treated fairly regardless of their family background or type and whether they are going through the pregnancy themselves or somebody else on their behalf.
I very much welcome the legislation. There is work to do on it and, therefore, t is important that we have that research but we are talking about these very personal and sensitive issues now. It is really important because we are public representatives and it is our job to talk about these things and bring them to light. I thank the Labour Party very much.
The purpose of the Bill is manifold. It is to ensure leave of 20 working days for those who have experienced a miscarriage and leave of ten working days for people in respect of assisted human reproduction such as IVF. It is also designed to create awareness and discussion about the impact of miscarriage in a compassionate and considerate way and to put a belated focus on miscarriage and reproductive health, which is often shrouded in silence with so many people suffering as a result.
The Bill's intent dovetails with that of the Miscarriage Association of Ireland’s mission, which is to “increase awareness in the general public that all pregnancy loss is a bereavement and the length of the pregnancy is not related to the depth of the grief and sense of loss experienced". Legislators and employers have a responsibility to those women affected by these circumstances to act appropriately when necessary. Last November, Sinn Féin brought a Bill to the Dáil to reform the Organisation of Working Time Act to protect workers. The Bill sought provision of a statutory entitlement to paid leave to acknowledge the challenges workers face when trying to escape an abusive relationship. We need a whole-of-society response that both supports and protects women. Today’s Bill is aimed a creating a compassionate environment in which workers are protected and supported and have better working conditions.
A miscarriage, whatever time it occurs, in the cycle of a pregnancy is a traumatic experience. It is a deeply personal loss and requires recognition that a potential life has been lost for reasons that many parents and their partners, friends and work colleagues may have difficulty understanding. Compassion and understanding will help the grieving and overcome the taboo that exists in some quarters still. Miscarriage is often not spoken about and people are unsure how to react or what to say.This awkwardness can add to feelings of anxiety for those affected. Workers here are entitled to the full State maternity benefit if they have a miscarriage from 24 weeks on but not earlier. However, most miscarriages happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Giving leave, specifically for a pregnancy loss, is about much more than money or time. Such leave would recognise that pregnancy loss is sometimes part of life. Tragically it is a very common experience for many women and others in our society.
The reality is that one in five women will experience a miscarriage at some point in their lives - some colleagues have said one in four. This is a significant number and behind the statistics there is a human story with all the emotions that we easily recognise when a natural death occurs with an adult.
The difficulty women face following a miscarriage can often be added to by having to work, meet colleagues and carry on as if nothing has happened. If we know anything about life these days, we know that loss arising from death and miscarriage is best handled over time with the help from loved ones, family and friends. Legislation and making employers aware of the impact of miscarriage will lift the issue out of its secrecy. When a similar law was being passed in New Zealand this year, it was said that its introduction was “for a compassionate and fair leave system that recognises the pain and the grief that comes from miscarriage.”
The Bill we are debating recognises another complex and difficult issue - that of infertility. It is important that people who are experiencing fertility difficulties are helped. It is a worldwide problem and it is growing according to the World Health Organization. One in six couples experience it. It affects men and women, with male infertility now a significant factor. Similar to the issue of miscarriage, fertility problems are often emotionally difficult to deal with.
Passing this Bill to give leave for women affected by miscarriage will make us leaders in Europe in protecting these workers. However, in other areas of workers’ rights and entitlements this State is lagging behind. For example, this State is one of only five in the EU with no statutory entitlement to sick pay. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has described sick pay a “basic right other European workers have.” The State is also an outlier in the fundamental right to collective bargaining, giving workers a greater voice and representation in the workplace.
Providing workers experiencing miscarriage with legal entitlement goes some way to help them at a very difficult time in their lives. It will also make the issue easier to speak about in the workplace and encourage solidarity and understanding among work colleagues, which is a good outcome for all involved.
I support the legislation. I thank Senator Bacik and her Labour colleagues for bringing it before the House tonight. This has been a good debate and one we will continue to have. Despite some minor disagreements, we can agree that it is of fundamental and universal importance. I made the point that this issue is often shrouded in secrecy for whatever reason. I do not say that in any negative or judgmental way; it is entirely understandable in the circumstances. This legislation should be passed tonight. One thing that can unify us is a determination to ensure that those workers impacted by this and their families get all the necessary support and consideration along with the services that they need. This legislation is certainly a step in the right direction in that regard.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I commend Senator Bacik and the Labour Party on introducing this legislation. I am sure everybody in the House is tired of hearing me talk about the importance of the Irish Women Workers' Union winning the two weeks' holiday for everybody. The Irish Women Workers' Union was founded by many of the women who came out of that revolutionary early part of the State, the founding of the State. Margaret Skinnider, who came out of that same movement, played a key role in the establishment of the INTO. I want to acknowledge that organisation's role in pressing forward and putting these issues on the agenda.
Senator Bacik has followed in that same tradition of bringing together gender equality issues and worker equality issues. In the previous Oireachtas as well as in this one she has introduced important legislation relating to platform workers, collective bargaining - we still need a right to collective bargaining in this country - and joint labour committees, recognising particularly sectors where women are often working which needed collective bargaining rights. Of course, she has led much of the work on the gender pay gap which, I am glad to see, is now being taken on more widely.
Those are all pieces that fit together, recognising that workers are also people who have lives, who have bodies and who have needs. That message came strongly from the Citizens' Assembly when it recommended reconfiguring the Constitution so that it recognised the private and family lives of all families - not just married families, but also women who are parenting alone and every kind of family that might be constructed in Ireland. The Citizens' Assembly also recognised that people may be working and caring, and the need to balance those concerns. That shows a vision of an integrated honest discussion that we need to have about life.
I agree that there has been a culture of silence, secrecy, stigma and shame on the issue. That has not happened without reason. We must be clear that the eighth amendment to the Constitution played a key role in that. In countries such as El Salvador and in certain states of the United States a woman can go to prison for having a miscarriage. That continues to be the reality. It was a concern when people were afraid to talk about these issues. I was really struck by Senator Pauline O'Reilly saying that many people will not speak to their doctor. For a long time, people were afraid to talk about these issues to their doctor, which has major consequences for miscarriage.
For example, for women who are rhesus negative and have an early miscarriage, the fact of having been pregnant for however brief period can have a major impact on the viability of their next pregnancy unless they are able to discuss it and learn about getting the treatment or additional care they might need. That is why these issues are so important. The Bill helps not only the individuals who are affected but also shifts the culture in society so that we recognise miscarriage as a very real and very hard thing.
Regarding the question of natural miscarriage versus induced miscarriage, let us be clear there are many kinds of miscarriages. Miscarriages can be both natural and then induced. Miscarriage is not always a moment. I know it generally is in movies, which is the only place we tend to see it. It is a terrible and awful moment, but many people discover that they have already miscarried when they go in for the nine-week or 12-week scan. They are probably excited and, unfortunately, they are probably alone because of the rules we have about accessing maternity hospitals at the moment. They discover that their pregnancy has ended but that their body has not realised it yet. That may last for a week. A woman may walk around for a week or ten days looking pregnant but not being pregnant. That is sometimes how long a miscarriage will take. That may require medical inducement and surgical intervention. That is all part of some people's miscarriage journey. That gives us a sense of why we are not just talking about time to grieve. Sometimes those 20 days will be needed for the process itself.
This Bill is important in moving things forward. Other Senators have mentioned IVF. The assisted human reproduction legislation must be introduced. The Minister of State will have heard the demand to have equity at the heart of that legislation. We should not just deal with the technical and moral issues of assisted human reproduction, but with those issues of equality of access. Again, this is an important piece that recognises that the times and dates are non-negotiable. These are very specific days that people have.
I commend a very important part of the Bill, the protection of employment rights. It is vital that people who are pregnant, who have a miscarriage or who need to attend IVF appointments do not feel they will be jeopardised, sidelined, mistreated, overlooked for promotion or placed into other roles. We should not have a culture where people are afraid to speak in their workplace about wanting to have a child. There is a reason for having protections relating to pregnancy. Similarly, we should have protections relating to employers not disadvantaging people. That is why this is not just health legislation; it is workers' rights legislation. I strongly commend it to the House.
I thank the Labour Party Senators for bringing the Bill forward. I acknowledge anyone in this House or in the other House who has been affected by this issue. All Senators know the anguish many people and families suffer in trying to have a child, as well as the physical or psychological pain of miscarriage, IVF and other fertility and reproductive treatments. It is so common. Every time I hear the number of people who are affected, I am shocked at how common it is.
Every circumstance and experience of fertility is different, but there should be clear statutory provisions for when it does not go to plan. There should be a State safety net to support women through the challenges they often face stoically and silently in the workplace. All too often, reproductive health in general is hidden. A matter can be personal and private but not hidden. It still needs to be provided for with dignity and compassion. Providing leave in these circumstances acknowledges the loss, anguish and trauma of women and their families, but it is also about workers' rights. Let us face it, it is mainly about the rights of women workers and making workplaces more realistic and fair for them. Too many barriers still exist for women in employment and those barriers mainly centre around reproduction, having children and caring for them. Workplaces are still very much one-size-fits-all places. The reality is that life is not black and white; there is lots of grey. That tends to affect women more so throughout their life stages, as was noted. We need this kind of legislation to break down those barriers.
The current provision is for a standard 26 weeks of maternity leave and an additional 16 weeks' leave for those who suffer miscarriage after 24 weeks or when the baby reaches a certain weight. However, there is a need to address the gap in the context of miscarriages before 24 weeks. All present have been inspired by New Zealand passing the Holidays (Bereavement Leave for Miscarriage) Amendment Act 2021 in March. It provides an entitlement of three days' leave to mothers and their partners following a miscarriage or stillbirth, which is an extension of the existing statutory bereavement leave in New Zealand. The Act provides three days' leave for women and their partners who lose a baby at any stage of pregnancy. Prospective parents will also be eligible if the mother of the baby they were hoping to adopt suffers a miscarriage, which is an important provision.
Time off for miscarriage at any stage should not be covered by a person's annual leave, sick leave or unpaid leave or by the kindness of the employer. As Senator Sherlock stated, it underlines the inequity of the situation that you may have an employer, job or role that can accommodate such leave, but not all people have that. There should also be provision for leave in the context of IVF fertility treatment and reproductive health. That treatment can be incredibly invasive. Again, it is about inequity or equity in terms of access and costs. I agree we need a model of care under which infertility issues can be addressed through the public health system. I, too, wish to see the assisted human reproduction legislation advanced. It is true that the introduction of any kind of paid leave will necessitate consultation with employers and a full regulatory impact assessment and stakeholder consultation would need to be undertaken. That is fully understood.
I thank the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance, INHA, for its Oireachtas briefing document on baby loss. The briefing notes there is currently no statutory entitlement to paid leave for parents whose child dies at any other age. That point was touched on by Senator Mullen. It is something we need to debate and consider. It is mind-boggling that a parent could be in a position where he or she would have to return to work, particularly before he or she is ready to do so, and that is what would have to be considered. To return to the point on equity, if people in certain jobs or roles do not have access to that leave, a statutory provision would be a good instrument, but it should be borne in mind that people react differently and some may need more time than others.
I acknowledge the work of Kildare County Council. The Irish Neonatal Health Alliance noted in its briefing that the council has waived fees for burial plots where a baby is less than 18 months old. If a family plot is chosen, the plot fee will be reduced. If the family chooses to bury the baby in an angels plot, the council will waive the fee. Those are practical things that could be done more widely for families to make something that is so awful a little bit better. In some countries, the state pays funeral costs for babies and children up to the age of 18. That is a compassionate support which this debate gives me an opportunity to highlight.
I will give the last word to the women who went through so much pain by themselves because of restrictions on maternity services. I acknowledge our female friends in the North who still do not have access to healthcare services in the most tragic of circumstances and have had to travel during Covid-19. I thank the Senators for raising this issue and I look forward to working with the House on legislation.
I thank Senator Bacik for bringing the Bill before the House. Last year, Meghan Markle documented in an article published in The New York Timesher personal experience of miscarriage. Her words have instigated an open and public discussion on the topic which truly underscores the need for the Bill. She wrote, "Losing a child means carrying an almost unbearable grief, experienced by many but talked about by few." I agree with her comments. Women who have experienced miscarriages have often suffered in silence, without public or private support. It is only right for the Oireachtas to recognise that losing a child before birth is heartbreaking for parents, as Meghan Markle pointed out, and requires time for healing. It is only right for the Oireachtas to recognise the inadequacies of Ireland's current stance on reproductive health leave. It is only right for us to support the Bill.
In the briefing paper prepared for Senators on the Bill, we are informed that one in five pregnancies in Ireland each year ends in miscarriage. One in five parents experience that unbearable grief. One in five pregnancies annually leave parents heartbroken and possibly in need of support. Up to 14,000 women a year suffer the death of a baby before 24 weeks' gestation and yet, as pointed out by Niamh Connolly-Coyne, a member of the board of directors of the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance, there is no statutory entitlement to paid leave for parents who experience the tragedy of miscarriage.
The Bill proposes up to 20 days' leave for women and their partners who suffer early miscarriage. If a woman has a stillborn birth that weighs more than 500 g and has died after 24 weeks' gestation, she is entitled to full maternity leave for 26 weeks as outlined in the Maternity Protection Act 1994 and the Maternity Protection (Amendment) Act 2004. Paternity leave is also a statutory entitlement in those circumstances. The fact the Government offers no statutory protection for a woman who loses her baby a mere week earlier is unacceptable, as the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance has explained. It urges the Government to address this matter urgently, as do I. We must ask what difference there is between 23 weeks' gestation and 24 weeks' gestation for a woman who is grieving the loss of her baby. It does not matter to a woman whether she has miscarried her child or the child was stillborn. As Mario Rosenstock remarked in an interview with The Irish Timeslast week, "It is the expectation and the burgeoning life that is coming, and it’s your preparation for the expectation of life coming into the world, and then for that to be cancelled is so sad and shocking." What is the Government doing to offer support to these parents?
Irish women should have the entitlements the Bill would offer them. I hope this debate and the ultimate passage of the Bill will ensure the conversation about miscarriage will take place and that women and their families will be able to make that healing journey a bit more easily. Let us not be naive as we consider the full effects of this legislation. First, it has brought to light a number of issues in Irish law and healthcare concerning reproduction and fertility. Under the Stillbirths Registration Act 1994, there is no provision to register babies who die before 24 weeks gestation. The Irish-registered Neonatal Death Alliance has suggested that today's Bill contains measures that will allow an opt-in recognition of these babies. Will the Bill include these measures?
Furthermore, there is no provision in Irish law to help cover the costs of a child's death. The Irish Neonatal Health Alliance has commended Kildare County Council, as Senator Currie mentioned earlier. Will this Bill include the provision for a children's funeral fund as implemented in the UK and Wales? Many undertakers in this country do not charge for funerals of stillborn babies and I commend those who provide that service.
What about the implications of the Bill as written regardless of the amendments that may be made? Will it make employers in the private sector more reluctant to hire women given the potential cost of providing leave for them? The Bill proposes an entitlement of up to ten days of leave for anyone who seeks reproductive healthcare treatments such as IVF. The Bill is not clear about all of the treatments and types of losses where people are entitled to leave. Will women who are expecting but experience a loss after an abortion be included in the Bill? Without clarity on such issues can we have clarity on how the Bill will have an impact on women in the labour force?
The legislation we are debating today is proposed in response to concerns by members of Ireland's labour forces. Representatives of the INTO approached Senator Bacik for assistance with the matter and, undoubtedly, the Oireachtas must respond. There is a certain humanity and respect owed to this situation that Meghan Markle and Mario Rosenstock, and many women and fathers who have lost their child, have described equally as heartbreaking in this manner and the current Irish law is missing that. However, in their response the legislators must carefully consider the scope of the reproductive health leave Bill. The legislators must discuss and consider what amendments will be made to this Bill and the likely impact that it will have on females in the labour force and women business owners. I have been a business owner throughout my career and employers have responsibilities towards their employees. I know that one's employees are the last thing one should think about when one is having a child but one does worry who will pay the wages to staff. As a woman in business, I found it hard to comprehend why there was never anything in legislation that affords women and others in business maternity leave, paternity leave or, indeed, leave to cover a miscarriage. We should address this matter but I do not know how that will be done. We must help women in business and women entrepreneurs who feel responsible for their employees.
I am sure that the Minister of State, who is in the House, can see how much this issue affects every single person who has made a contribution here today. It affects men, women and their partners. This is an important topic and I am sure that he is taking our contributions to heart.
I thank Senator Sherlock for her contribution and openness, which will support so many. She is very brave. I thank Senator Bacik for the opportunity to speak on this legislation. I thank all the Senators for their excellent contributions. Yes, Senator Higgins is absolutely right that there is a culture of silence and we know that is because women's health sometimes has not been to the forefront as it should be. I say to all the young women who are listening to us right now that we want a more open and fair Ireland, and be in no doubt we will achieve that with each piece of legislation that we pass here. We want changes to support women and we want equality so that is access to health, leave and equality in the workplace. We are not there yet but we will get there. We want equality.
I acknowledge the Irish National Teachers Organisation. I thank Ms Siobhán Lynskey from the INTO branch in Tuam, County Galway, for tabling a motion on this matter. I thank all of the men and women who have contacted and emailed all of us here on this topic and expressed support for women to have reproductive leave.
A miscarriage or the IVF process can be traumatic experiences for women and their partners, and there is a period of mourning and loss. There are also challenges with infertility and IVF success rates, which makes this all so tough. The Government did make a commitment in the programme for Government to provide a model of care for infertility. The Government is committing funding but with all the impacts of Covid and the lockdown there are delays. We have four regional fertility hubs and another two are being rolled out. I ask that we see movement on that initiative as quickly as possible.
The INTO, in its press release, noted that one third of its members are under the age of 35 and over 85% are female so it is no wonder that the INTO brought this matter forward. The INTO is the first group to do this and it is an issue that has an impact on so many and people in all walks of life.
As someone who was a substitute teacher at second level, I understand how teachers are very limited in their time off and try to schedule everything around their limited time. Such a situation is not right and is not good enough.
As a woman, as a member of Fine Gael and as a Member with my Government colleagues here, we very much support leave and support women in the call for reproductive health leave, and in terms of leave following a miscarriage. I support the well-being of women and commend the New Zealand Parliament on leading the way with its introduction of three days paid leave.
In terms of taboo subjects, I spoke about menopause last week and stressed that it is important that we support public awareness measures, particularly the Sláintecare aim to have healthy communities. It is important that we improve access to healthcare measures and supports. We must get away from the taboo of silence and stigma, which means people must open up and talk to their GPs. It is shocking to think that women cannot speak to their GPs about these matters. Silence in workplaces is frustrating.
The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth will review this matter and engage with stakeholders to commission research. I very much support our colleagues in doing that work.
I thank the Labour Party Senators. I welcome the opportunity to endorse the introduction of statutory leave to support the experience of miscarriage and reproductive health. I believe that this leave will be provided for during the tenure of this Government as it is the next logical provision to build on what has been an evolving framework for family supports, under my own party in government for the last ten years.
In the devastation of pregnancy loss, especially early pregnancy, couples need time off together. Both the mother who experiences physical and emotional loss and her partner who experiences emotional loss need to be able to support each other as they mourn.
A couple entering into IVF treatment should also be able to spend time in the physical and emotional head and heart space away from the concerns of normal life. I have been there 13 times - 12 personally and one via surrogacy. It is an exciting, frightening and emotional rollercoaster and, in that place, I have experienced five miscarriages and the joy of the birth of our daughter via surrogacy.
I am grateful for the great strides that the Government is making in moving forward with the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill and its surrogacy provision. I am pleased that that Bill when published will reflect what is possible and will legislate ethically for surrogacy in a manner that reflects the lived experience of couples in this country with a retrospective provision for those children whose mothers, like me, are not currently recognised in the State as such. I welcome that the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, the Minister for Health, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth have set up an interdepartmental group that will collaborate with people from the assisted human reproduction collaborative group.
I completely support the right to leave for fertility treatment. The discussions here this evening have been very good and, quite rightly, move away from the idea of shame and stigma. However, I caution against any presumptions being made about how couples should deal with their IVF journey. Through my own experience, and that of couples with whom I have worked, I know that couples differ in how they wish to speak about their fertility journey.Some choose to be public and others choose to be private, generally born out of their own fears or confidence in their coping mechanisms. They are fearful of their IVF journey not resulting in success. Opening up their journey brings with it the possibility of commentary from others or the dismissal of their journey by others, as well as the hopes and expectations of others, such as grandparents waiting for a child. In my own experience, in people trying to mind me, I was excluded from children's birthday parties and thus I never had the opportunity to attend and have a glass of wine. In thinking they were minding me, people excluded me, which made the pain of the journey all the worse. We need to be careful not to force a position where everything has to be out in the open. In creating a provision and entitlement, we need to be mindful and sensitive to that. How a couple decides to deal with it needs to be respected.
I welcome this provision and I welcome the research to be undertaken by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, which I think is necessary. I am grateful to this House for the debate.
It is riveting to listen to people. I acknowledge Senator Seery Kearney's contribution and the pain she has endured.
I know the Minister of State, Deputy English, to be a compassionate man. I have no doubt he will take this debate in that vein. I commend my male colleagues for being here. Too often when we have debates on what are perceived as women's health issues, there is a lack of the male voice. It is refreshing to see so many of my male colleagues here today. It is really important because the journey of fertility and the journey of loss is as much a matter for the man as it is for their partner. I, again, thank my male colleagues for being here.
I thank my colleagues, Senators Bacik and Sherlock, for bringing this motion before us. It is very timely. I was reminded on my Facebook memories feed that three years ago we had the opportunity to discuss women's health and women's right to choose. Yesterday evening at 8 p.m. the RTÉ Radio 1 "Drama on One" was a play entitled "No One Ever Asked Me That", which was incredible. It was the story of two friends, Jenny and Clare, who were on opposite sides of the same journey. One of them had discovered she was pregnant when she really did not want to be for various reasons and the other, a best friend, was desperately trying to get pregnant. The loss and tragedy for both of them and their partners was well illustrated. At the time, I was driving from my mother's home to my own home and I remained in the car for 25 minutes to listen to the end of the story. It was compelling. Fair play to RTÉ for dealing with both sides of the issue so sensitively.
It is important to recognise that the programme for Government provides for a welcome shift in regard to women's health. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Ministers of State in the Department of Health have done a huge amount of work in this area in the last ten months. The Minister has established a women's health fund, introduced two community-based ambulatory gynaecology services, expanded the endometriosis service and, the day before yesterday, announced a clinical lead for women's health in general practice to enable the development of a comprehensive life course approach to women's health, which is a first for Ireland. The Free Provision of Period Products Bill 2021 has been adopted by the Government as well. We are on a positive trajectory in terms of the work being done in regard to surrogacy, IVF and assisted human reproductive services, all of which are important.
The loss of a child is incredibly traumatic. It brings many emotions. I thank, in particular, those who have shared their stories with me, and not just over the last few days. I refer to a friend, Jackie Tyrell, who spoke publicly about her loss, and her partner Carl's loss, of twin boys eight years ago. I learned so much from her, including about Féileacáin and the incredible work it does to support those who have had miscarriages and stillbirths. Once a person reaches out, there is incredible support and love available to them from volunteers across the country. I know of so many women, including my mother, who knitted shawls and cardigans for their baby and, where appropriate, hired a photographer to take photographs so that they could have a lifelong memory of the child.
As I said, I welcome and support the Bill. I acknowledge the work of the INTO. I was a member of the INTO for many years. Many principals that I know, when faced with this situation, were very understanding and compassionate and granted the leave, but it is important there is a legislative framework for would-be mums and would-be dads when they are going through a very difficult time. The Government has already committed to further research, which I welcome. It will be undertaken by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in conjunction with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. A separate piece of stand-alone legislation on existing family leave would be appropriate for miscarriage and reproductive health leave. That is important, in particular to all of those who are listening in and are touched by this topic, which may be far more people than any of us will ever know. I have heard some stories and I know of some struggles, but there are many whose struggles I do not know about. It is important they know that we are having this debate about trying to make their journey a little easier in the future. That is as much as we can do. Sadly, as we know, annually 16,000 babies are not born. We need to hold their parents in our hearts and do what we can to help them on their journey of loss and grief.
I welcome the Bill from the Labour Party group leader, Senator Bacik, who, I believe, has now introduced and had passed more Private Members' Bills than any other Senator, which is a record to be proud of.
This Bill is fundamentally practical, useful and timely. As we begin to emerge from the strangest of times for the organisation of working time for the entire country under Covid-19 restrictions, it is prime time to discuss how we structure our working lives, which must interact in a flexible and, ultimately, understanding way with our lives. For women, that is a particularly unique intersection because our bodies experience a very wide range of reproductive experiences from periods to pregnancy, endometriosis, miscarriage, abortion, perimenopause and full-blown menopause. Over the course of our lives, we will take long-term medication to manage both our reproductive cycle and the hormonal and pain management that comes with that. It is a real hoot. An issue not always acknowledged enough in our discussions about women in work is the physical pain of an internal organ shed its internal wall once a month. It is pretty sore and quite inconvenient. The physical pain and fatigue associated with every one of the events I have mentioned are normal and are expected to be borne by women while working, all the while smiling, mothering, managing and scheduling and doing up to 70% of the domestic work in the family home. In short, it is not easy being a working woman, or a working trans woman. To be frank, for those with a uterus working is not easy.
This legislation, posed by Senator Bacik, is about ensuring dignity, care and compassion are exercised in respect of those who many find themselves in need of time off from work to manage the physical, psychological and emotional impact of miscarriage or IVF. At this moment, I am thinking of some of my young friends who for various reasons have had to have a hysterectomy, some of them in their early 20s. They, too, have faced a number of reproductive complications and have had to leave this country in order to get the life-saving or life-changing surgery they needed.While the Bill is specifically about reproductive leave, I want to flag that we should not forget that reproductive complication goes a bit further than we have been talking most commonly about today. Let us remind ourselves that the issue under discussion is far more common than we think, based on how little we talk or are encouraged to talk about this. The statistics have been outlined. For example, one in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage and one in five couples will experience fertility issues. I am aware we are rattling off the statistics but many people, some in this room, have lived experience of these issues. I hope the proposed legislation gives some of them comfort and optimism that we are going to go in the right direction in this country in dealing with this issue.
The vast majority of people will be in work while they experience these issues, so it almost comical that, in 2021, we do not have standard leave applicable for 50% of working people when they need it in respect of pregnancy loss or accessing fertility treatments. We also do not have standard work practice polices in most places for periods, menopause or endometriosis. These are a normal part of women’s lives that cost us money, time and emotional and physical pain, but are simply not talked about in the place were we may spend more hours a week than we do with our family or in our own homes. These are all places where this goes unspoken about.
This legislation not only addresses the very practical provision of leave for those who need it, but it opens up spaces, workplaces and radio studios to this conversation that we have all been avoiding for a long time, which is that women's reproductive lives are simply not the same as men’s. Our bodies have this tedious reproductive and fertility system ticking away and we have to manage that and factor it into our everyday lives, mostly with little or no support. I am acutely aware of Senator Seery Kearney’s point that not everyone wants to be able to discuss this and that there may be people listening today, or even in this room, for whom this is a deeply personal conversation. As I said, I hope that whatever way people find to deal with these things, they will take some comfort from the fact legislation is being brought forward that will make things better for other people coming after them, and that we are going to do the right thing.
The loss of a pregnancy is an incredibly difficult thing to go through. I have failed to this point to mention that it is not only difficult for those who experience pregnancy loss, but also for their partners. There are also extraordinary added complications for a trans person who experiences pregnancy loss or fertility issues. In 2021, it is time to have these difficult conversations and recognise that, very often, the people we walk past in the corridor or share an office cubicle with, although we have not been sharing an office much in the past year, may be silently suffering and our current work practices are compounding their anguish. Let us get this Bill passed.
As has been said, his Bill is about workers’ rights and, as a trade unionist, I am proud once again to be part of a party in the Seanad that is consistently putting forward legislation on workers’ rights. I thank the many people who have reached out to me with their deeply personal stories. Everyone in this Chamber has probably had somebody reach out to them in advance of this debate. I thank those who have shared today, particularly Senator Mary Seery Kearney for her honesty and her frankness. Again, I commend my colleague, friend and comrade, Senator Ivana Bacik, on once again leading the legislative charge and bringing forward this timely, necessary and important legislation.
I commend the Bill and I commend Senators Bacik and Sherlock on bringing it forward. I commend my colleague, Senator Mary Seery Kearney, on speaking of her experience.
It is sad it has taken until 2021 for this Bill to be brought forward. If the Bill is enacted, it will give an entitlement for up to 20 days of paid leave for women experiencing the trauma of early miscarriage and up to ten days of paid leave for employees accessing other reproductive health treatments, such as IVF. I fully support this important legislation and I hope it will progress through both Houses. The Bill will give practical support to workers and help to open up a national conversation around reproductive health and fertility in this country. Conversations such as these help to destigmatise the isolating and traumatic reproductive health challenges lived by so many people in this country every day.
Many people return to work immediately and this is not right. Any parent knows the road to parenthood is sometimes not easy. However, for some couples it is devastating. Approximately 14,000 women in Ireland suffer a miscarriage every year; therefore, more than one in five pregnancies end in miscarriage. Between one in four and one in six couples or individuals in Ireland encounters difficulty conceiving. The success rate for patients at a given IVF clinic in Ireland is approximately 25% for patients aged over 40, and the majority of clinics in Ireland list IVF at a cost of between €4,500 and €5,000 per cycle.
While a number of maternity hospitals have set up bereavement specialist teams to support parents, it is not enough. Currently, too many people, women in particular, suffer in silence because they do not believe the support is there for them. These personal struggles have been carried out in silence, with many workers taking annual leave to access reproductive health care or after the tragedy of an early miscarriage. This Bill is important to show that there will be support at what is a very difficult time for parents, women in particular. I fully support the Bill and I look forward to seeing it pass through both Houses and being enacted in the near future.
I thank my colleague for sharing time. I am delighted to get the opportunity to speak on what is a very important topic. In doing so, it is important to pause and reflect on the significant advances that have been implemented in recent years to support families that have been fortunate enough to have children. On top of the 26 weeks paid maternity leave, we now have two weeks paid paternity leave, introduced in 2016, which can be taken at any time in the first six months after the birth, or placement in the case of adoption. We now have five weeks paid parents leave, which was introduced for both parents, and this can be taken in the first two years of the child's life. We now have unpaid parental leave, which has been extended from 22 to 26 weeks since 1 September last year, and it can be taken before the child's 12th birthday, or 16th birthday in the case of a disability. A national childcare scheme was also introduced to provide financial support to help parents meet the cost of childcare. This includes a universal subsidy for children aged under three and a means-assessed subsidy for children aged up to 15.
We are here to talk about those who have not been fortunate enough to avail of these provisions due to fertility issues or due to miscarriage or stillbirth. As Senator Ahearn said, debate on this cohort of people has increased considerably in recent weeks since the New Zealand Parliament passed the Holidays (Bereavement Leave for Miscarriage) Amendment Act 2021, providing an entitlement to mothers and their partners of three days paid leave following a miscarriage or stillbirth at any stage of pregnancy. Prospective parents will also be eligible if the mother of the baby they were hoping to adopt from suffers a miscarriage. This new law, mandating three days of paid bereavement leave, is distinct from sick leave or maternity leave, and is something which I believe, as a Government, we need to take action on in short order.
As many speakers said, this issue often goes unspoken about within families, groups of friends and wider society. That has to change. It is often the case that couples suffer in silence and do not talk about the difficulties they experience in conceiving or throughout pregnancy. In cases where couples suffer miscarriage or stillbirths and subsequently have successful pregnancies, their sons and daughters often never find out about the siblings they could have had until many years later, if at all. As legislators, I believe we have a role in heightening awareness of reproductive health and the onus is on us to ensure we put necessary supports in place to support families at what is an exceptionally difficult time. I know it is the desire of the Minister and of the Government to make the journey experienced by so many that little bit easier.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to speak on this important Bill that I am proud to co-sign with my Labour colleagues. I thank Senator Ivana Bacik for her work on the Bill. Once again, she is promoting women's health in this country and identifying the many failures we have with regard to the health of women.Once again, she is introducing a Bill to assist women at one of the most difficult times in their lives, a time when they should not feel alone and when couples should be able to support each other without having to worry about when the bill will be paid.
As others have done, I acknowledge the contribution of my colleagues, Senators Sherlock and Seery Kearney. The human story is always important. I hope the stories of the two Senators and their contributions tonight will give hope and solace to those going through this most difficult stage in their lives and let them know they are not alone. As Senator Seery Kearney said, it is important to know there is somebody to talk to, but only if they want somebody to talk to. I thank my colleague, Councillor Alison Gilliland, for her work on this Bill.
Sadly, one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage, affecting 14,000 women. Behind the figures are human stories, including stories of hope and, indeed, stress. Most important, they are stories of Irish women and men whose lives will revolve around starting a family.
For far too long, women have had to remain silent in their workplaces about the grief of early miscarriage or have had to use their annual leave to attend appointments for IVF treatment. This Bill seeks to provide women and, indeed, men with support in the workplace when they are struggling with fertility or other reproductive health issues. The Bill is about recognising that behind the miscarriage statistics are hopes and dreams dashed through pregnancy loss. Most important, it is about real change whereby this country will finally begin to recognise the importance of women in the workplace. The Bill will assist so many of them when they need assistance most.
I thank Senators Bacik and Sherlock for this Bill. I thank the Labour Party in general for its work in this area. I am glad to have a chance to be part of this discussion but I am probably more glad to be able to listen to the discussion, for once. Without a doubt, we are all supportive of the need to introduce change in this area as quickly as possible. I had a great chance just to sit back and listen to everybody's personal stories and the stories relayed to them. Everybody knows somebody who has been touched by miscarriage or a stillbirth after the long journey to try to have a family in the first place and all the complications that go with that. Some people have been very lucky on that journey while some have been very unlucky. Everyone's story is different, and everyone is affected differently. It is important when bringing forward legislation and having these discussions that we try to capture all that as best we can. I am glad we have had a really good conversation here tonight. It will not complete the legislative journey but it will certainly have been a major contributor. I thank both of the Senators for introducing the Bill and giving us an opportunity to discuss it.
A couple of issues arise. We can all understand that the loss is absolutely devastating for anybody who has been in any of the scenarios described. I am aware of the time invested by those who want to have a baby. They go to great lengths but, for whatever reason, it might not happen for them. We have to try to find ways to make the journey easier for everybody, including in respect of dealing with the sorrow and joy and trying to find the time. Over the years, we have made improvements to give people more time when they are successful in starting a family but there is so much more we need to do. I am conscious that this discussion has been going on for many years. It certainly came to the fore again with the legislation that was passed in New Zealand. It was a welcome boost and an example to many other countries. We are here to discuss a Bill that goes further than that, and rightly so. I am glad we are doing that.
Many referred to secrecy and the inability of families who are going through what I have described to have the conversation. There may be familial or social reasons for this but they certainly should not be based on one's job or employment. Through legislation, we are trying to make a change to ensure people will not be afraid to have a conversation with an employer, boss, manager, supervisor or colleague or will not shy away from it because of fear over what will happen afterwards. People wonder whether they will miss out on a promotion or not get the job in the first place. Other such scenarios arise. These should not be part of one's thinking. Sadly, we are aware that they are. It is only through legislation, good practice, consultation, advice, guidance for employers and the associated directions that we will change this. We have made great strides but we have a long way to go.
I can see from the correspondence I received in the past couple of days that people are still afraid to have this conversation at work or to ask for time off. People will admit, however, that the majority of employers are in a good space and try and want to do the right thing. Some might not be able to have the conversation themselves or find it very awkward but they certainly want advice and guidance. They come to us and employment agencies to get that advice and guidance. Very often, legislation is what is needed to pave the way and really set a mark. I am glad that all of us, across all parties, are committed to legislation. Both the Tánaiste and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, got permission from the Cabinet to move forward with legislation in this area. We are certainly not opposing the Bill tonight. Senator Bacik will understand that we cannot agree with everything. We agree on the principle and what we want to achieve overall. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will commission research on this and there will be consultation on it to move on with this journey.
Let me address some of the issues regarding which we have concerns. In this regard, Senator Bacik mentioned the structure of the legislation. In her opening speech, she was clear and honest about the fact that this is an attempt to move things forward. She is not claiming that everything is perfect. We are not claiming to know everything either but we want to tease this through and engage in the process as quickly as possible to try to get where we want to go. We can certainly support the principle of the legislation but we need to try to deal with the format and structure.
The Government feels that stand-alone legislation is merited. Dedicated legislation is warranted to address the matter of reproductive health and to meet the need for time off, paid leave, additional unpaid leave or whatever else is required by people who have had a miscarriage or stillborn child. We would like to work with the House on that and ascertain how we can make progress. Most legislation in this area is stand-alone legislation.
We do not believe the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 is the appropriate legislative mechanism to deal with the policies regarding miscarriage or reproductive healthcare. Existing compassionate leave arrangements are legislated for in specific Acts. The Carer's Leave Act and the family provisions such as the Parental Leave Acts of 1998 and 2019 all had an individual journey because they required their own research, evidence, consultation and guidance to get them absolutely right.
The Organisation of Working Time Act was to provide for the implementation of the European working time directive. It sets out an employee's maximum working hours and entitlements to minimum rest periods and a minimum period of paid annual leave but it was not designed to be the instigator of new policies or to set out the terms and conditions regarding specific forms of compassionate leave. While it can be adjusted to recognise other policy changes, we do not believe it is the legislation to use. That is not a criticism; we just believe it is better to have stand-alone legislation. I will be happy to work with the Senators on that. As this Bill progresses, it will probably give us an opportunity to develop our thinking in this regard and to work it out together. That is what the Tánaiste wants to do because our Department recognises it is important from an employment point of view, but it might not need to be led through employment legislation. More than likely, it will be an equality matter. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, wants to lead off on that and has got permission to do so.
To be absolutely clear, it is only a question of the structure; it is not about the principle. The Government is on the same page as everybody else here. It is a matter of how we can proceed appropriately and make sure we address all the various scenarios and deal with everyone's concerns and hurt.
I want to be fair. We have had this discussion before when dealing with other legislation in the Seanad. Senator Sherlock introduced the statutory sick pay Bill. We had the same conversation in that regard and asked for a little more time. I am aware that we are asking for a lot of trust from the Opposition when we say we are with it on a journey and a principle but that we need a little time. This is what we are doing with this Bill. When dealing with the statutory sick pay Bill, I stood here and asked for six or seven months. I am conscious that the six months was probably up at the end of April or during May but the legislation is nearly ready to introduce to the House. We honoured our commitment and we will bring the legislation before the House. The same commitment is being made regarding the Bill before us.
We must recognise that many employers do the right thing, try to get it right, have the conversation with their colleagues and determine what is suitable. I received an email from a friend this week who explained to me that he or she sat down with an employee and agreed that, for a miscarriage, a week of paid leave was appropriate, and that if more time were needed, it would be unpaid. They were able to have the conversation, tease out the matter together and review the decision afterwards to see whether the right approach was taken. Everybody in the working environment benefits because the organisation now has proposals for dealing with these circumstances. We like to see employers and employees having these conversations and developing a culture that respects both the employer and employee and the importance of both. It is a question of legislation to lead off on this.The reason I reference businesses and the different approaches by employers is that the majority want to do it. Many of us know from talking to small business owners with a low number of employees that they find it difficult when it comes to the financial aspect of paid leave. They are supportive and would like to do the right thing but some businesses cannot afford to do that. That is why when we bring forward legislation which states it is to be paid by the employer, we have to have strike a balance with the State supporting employers who cannot do that. If we agree we want to make reproductive health leave available in a caring way, we have to have a straightforward, honest conversation with those businesses. We accept many can afford to do it and should step up; others need assistance. As we are having these conversations similarly regarding the statutory sick pay scheme, a scheme is to be put in place and likewise we will see changes here. However, we need to have that conversation with employers and find the genuine ones who cannot and we need to step up and support them through State supports, which we would do with the minimum wage as well. Thankfully, the majority of companies are able to handle that and bring it forward.
We need a full regulatory impact of legislation such as this. There is no point in imposing this on anybody. We need to bring everybody with us on that journey. We have achieved a lot in this House over recent years when it comes to strengthening legislation relating to employees and working conditions. We have done it in conjunction with our social partners and I accept that is the intention Labour has here but I ask that we spend a bit of time doing that. That consultation and research is what it is about.
Others went through some parts of the Bill we have issues and concerns with. Any time a Bill is brought forward, changes are needed. We are committed to compassionate leave. There is currently no statutory leave entitlement for parents for pregnancy for less than 24 weeks. We want to change that and are committed to changing it. There is no statutory entitlement for any workers for any bereavement or compassionate leave, including pregnancy loss. We have to tease that through and have that conversation. Bereavement leave can be provided for in an employment contract. Some do that; some do not. Some do it in an ad hocor unplanned way and look after each other. We have that in local businesses, but it is not possible in other organisations. Others do it by way of custom, practice and common decency. That is common in our businesses and is something I am proud of. Other cases fall to an employer's discretion.
It should not have to be an awkward conversation. It should not be about the woman going through this or her partner having to ask or bring up the conversation or being afraid of having the conversation and thinking about it. They should know the legislation and guidance are there to protect them and that is what we want to try to achieve.
This is an area the Government wants to work on with all Members. I get a strong sense we are all on the same space on that. I thank everybody for their commitment and for sharing their personal stories and stories of the people they represent. We know there are many people out there who have been hurt a lot and the least we can do is try to ease that pain a little bit. It does not mean we can deal with all situations that are there because the sorrow for some is something we cannot get in and help.
Senator O'Loughlin touched on the number of men in the Chamber. We are glad to be here and to be part of the conversation but we can never feel what women are going through. We try to understand it and we research it. I am lucky to be a parent of four young kids at home. We can understand a lot of it but we can only be part of that conversation. We have to work with women on that to make sure we get it right and that is why we are glad to be here and contribute. As a Minister of State with responsibility for employment law along with the Tánaiste, I am happy for our Department to play its part working alongside the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the other Departments that have a role in this. We will be able to continue this conversation over the weeks and months ahead.
I thank all who spoke so eloquently in support of the Bill. Everyone was supportive and tonight we saw the Seanad at its best. I thought the speeches were so moving and eloquent. I particularly thank those who shared their personal experiences. Senators Sherlock and Seery Kearney spoke courageously about their own life experiences. We all know people who have been through this. I am lucky enough to be a mother of teenage daughters. All of us understand the pain and heartbreak experienced by so many in what somebody described as the road to parenthood.
Senator Keogan spoke about miscarriage as something that is experienced by many but talked about by few. That summed up the culture of silence. So many of the brave women and men who emailed and contacted us talked about the feeling they could not speak about this, particularly in the workplace to their employer, even to their doctor or anyone beyond a small circle. That for all of us in the Labour group encapsulates why this Bill is so important. It seeks to introduce a practical measure and, symbolically, it seeks to break down the culture of silence and give people space to speak about these raw and difficult personal experiences. I thank again all colleagues for those outstanding contributions. I thank the Minister of State for his positive response. I particularly thank the INTO and Councillor Alison Gilliland who initiated this legislation for their work on this area.
The Bill is about choice for women and couples experiencing difficulties with reproductive health. It does not place any onus on any employee to speak publicly or within their workplace. Currently many conversations are going on within workplaces. Many people may not wish to have that conversation, even if the Bill is introduced. The point is it would provide choice. It is an equality measure, specifically to enable recognition of women's reproductive health, and a workplace measure for men and women. It has been positive to see so many male colleagues as well as women contributing to this debate. It is about improving quality of life and culture in the workplace.
Some asked about the extent of the application of the Bill. Legislation is in place relating to late miscarriage or later stillbirth. I pay tribute to the work of Féileacáin and the neonatal and stillbirth alliance, which brought to my attention and that of others the gap where earlier stillbirth is not covered. This Bill does not cover that but now that it has been brought to our attention, it is clear more needs to be done.
The Bill does not apply to partners. It applies to somebody who needs medically certified time off for reproductive health treatment. That would include termination of pregnancy and early miscarriage. There is a physical and emotional recovery involved. It is not a cover-all bill. It does not cover bereavement. Many people have spoken eloquently about bereavement, losing a child, spouse or partner. We do not, as the Minister of State said, have statute law on that; we should. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, brought forward legislation on parental leave previously. That is beyond the scope of this modest proposal.
The Minister of State, Deputy English, referred to the structure of the Bill. I agree with him. We introduced the Bill as a modest proposal in early March based on the force majeureleave provision in the Organisation of Working Time Act. Given the number of people who have come to us and the experiences we have heard about, I agree with him. It is more appropriate for a stand-alone Bill or a Bill that comes within the equality framework. I would like to work with him, his Department and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and his Department on developing that framework. The number of issues, the extent of the experience and the fact that so many people are touched by this points to the need for stand-alone legislation that is not just built onto the existing legislative framework, which is the Organisation of Working Time Act. It may be that some sort of banded leave provision should be provided for, depending on the stage in pregnancy when a miscarriage is suffered or a stillbirth is experienced. The INTO first talked to me about that. It may be that would come as an amendment to the employment equality legislation.
These are technical matters. What is important to all of us here tonight and all those affected by the issues we are discussing is that the principle be recognised and that there should be statutory recognition for time off work for people who need it where they have experienced miscarriage, the loss of a wanted pregnancy or are enduring IVF or other fertility or reproductive health treatments. I am happy to continue to work with the Minister of State and other colleagues in this House on this issue.
I again thank all Members for the support. I am conscious of all the people touched by the issues and thinking of them and the journeys they have been on.