Thursday, 16 December 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State. He may very well know that the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 ensures animals are given pain relief before procedures are carried out that could cause them pain and distress. There are two issues to note about that. The first is it is a matter of legislation, not of being left to medical experts, and the second is that yesterday, during the debate on the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) (Foetal Pain Relief) Bill 2021, which was brought before the Oireachtas, the Government tabled an amendment to delay or prevent its progression. The line coming from the Government is that it is a matter that should be left to clinical guidelines.
I think that is horrendous, particularly when one considers that all the dramatis personaeof recent years who pushed for change to our abortion laws, such as Dr. Peter Boylan, the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and all those organisations, have been completely silent on the question of precautionary pain relief. There can be only one explanation for that, namely, for those who see abortion as something desirable in the law, anything that suggests the humanity of the unborn child is to be avoided, even if that involves cruelty. That is a desperate situation and it cries out for legal remedy.
That is why it is vital that, in the context of the three-year review to take place of the abortion legislation, there be a strictly independent chairperson, not somebody, in the words of the Department of Health official, Ms Geraldine Luddy, appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health last week, with and a sexual-and-reproductive-rights approach. That is code for buy-in to abortion. We are talking about a three-year review of abortion legislation, legislation which many people in this country oppose. Indeed, even some people who voted for repeal of the eighth amendment would think it goes too far in certain key respects. There has to be strict independence here; there cannot be thought control about this issue. That is why last week I recommended it be a judge or a retired judge. None of us is neutral on the subject of abortion - it is a life-and-death issue - but somebody such as a judge, who has had to make a career out of striving for neutrality and impartiality, might be best placed to chair this review. That is vital.
I have heard the Minister for Health make the point the policy has been decided and the legislation will not change but rather that this review is about examining the workings of the legislation. A closed-minded approach such as that, however, is never taken when there is a three-year review. The reason for a three-year review is to see whether anything in the legislation is counter-productive or is not working. What is working from some people's point of view will mean it does not sufficiently facilitate abortion, but for other people, what is not working is that, for example, it has led to a dramatic increase in the number of abortions.We know that to be the case, with 13,000 over the last two years. That is way in excess of the annual rates before it was legalised. This is something we did not know before, although many of us warned about that point in advance of the advent of legislation, and it must be relevant to a review.
Pre-eminently, though, I refer to something like pain relief and the case for precautionary pain relief in light of what the science now appears to be telling us about the capacity of the unborn child to feel pain in the context of later-term abortions. This aspect must be among the subjects to be reviewed. In circumstances where the Minister has not so far engaged with anybody who would regard themselves as a defender of the welfare of the unborn in this situation - and the Minister gave me a private verbal commitment that he would engage but we will have to see what that means - what is more important is that there be an independent chair of this review committee who will, as a matter of professionalism and determination, engage with all sides and not just with those who are happy with the abortion law and those who want more facility for abortion in this country, but also with those who wish to protect the unborn.
Therefore, this is not just an issue of life and death. It is a matter of fundamental human decency. In the reply from the Minister of State, I hope the Government will give a commitment that the chair of this review will be strictly independent and that means independent on the subject of abortion, as far as that is possible.
The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 was signed into law on 20 December 2018 and commenced on 1 January 2019. A review clause was included in the Act to facilitate monitoring of the impact, operation and effectiveness of the legislation in practice, as well as of the delivery of services in this area. The Minister for Health commenced the review of the Act on 8 December 2021. Phase 1 of the review will capture information on the operation of the Act from the perspective of women who access the service, health professionals who deliver the service and the public. Later, it may also include service users and service providers. Phase 2 of the review will be led by an independent chair. Senator Mullen pointed out that the Minister had given him a private verbal commitment that will be an independent chair.
Phase 2, led by the independent chair, will assess to what extent the objectives of the Act have been achieved and analysing in that regard the findings of the three strands of information concerning the operation of the Act. The extent to which the Act's objectives have not been achieved will be assessed and recommendations made to address any barriers identified. The chair of the review will also draw on the findings of other relevant peer-reviewed research and consult further with stakeholders, as necessary, before providing conclusions and any recommendations to the Minister in 2022.
For the review to be effective, it must find out whether the legislation provided access to termination of pregnancy services in practice to those who wish to avail of them. In this regard, independent research exploring women’s experiences of termination of pregnancy services and gathering their views on how the system has operated since 1 January 2019 will be essential.
Information from service providers will supply the second key strand for the review. Here, we will need to gather the views of those involved in providing termination of pregnancy services in community and acute settings in Ireland. A tender for this research was issued on the eTenders website last week.
It will also be important to include, as the third strand of the review, an opportunity for members of the public, special interest groups or any other interested parties to submit their views for consideration in the review process. This will be achieved through a public consultation process, and that was launched on the Department of Health’s website on 8 December. That aspect will run until April 2022.
I am pleased that a review of the Act has commenced, and I assure the Senator that the Minister is aware of the need to appoint a chair who will conduct this work thoroughly and efficiently in a fair and transparent manner.
"Thoroughly and officially”, but no mention of independence. In everything said by the Minister of State, there was not a single concession to the idea I referred to. It was all about consulting first with service providers and those who avail of the service. No mention was made of medical people who have a conscientious objection or of scientific and other experts who have concerns about the impact of this legislation in respect of rising numbers of abortions, issues around pain relief and questions concerning promoting positive alternatives to abortion. There was nothing of that nature.
All that is being hived off to just some general consultation with the public heading. That really shows the contempt that the Government has for the unborn child and for those who would defend his or her welfare, even within the context of an abortion regime. That is truly tragic. There was not a word there that acknowledged that there is any expert concern about the impact of the abortion law on unborn children. That is an utterly tragic situation. A review should not just be about looking at whether the objectives of the Act have been met. It should, and always is in these cases, also be concerned with looking at whether any aspect of the Act is counterproductive. Therefore, I ask the Minister of State, personally, and others listening to make their views known to the Government, because clearly it is not interested in authentic independence on this issue.
I will bring the Senator's views and concerns back to the Minister. He has commenced a review of the Act in line with the statutory and Government commitments. The review of the operation and effectiveness of the Act gives us an opportunity to hear the views of all those involved and, most particularly, those of service users and service providers. I am confident that the information which will be gathered during the review on the operation of the 2018 Act will provide us with evidence of how to proceed in future to continue to ensure that the service mandated by the people in May 2018 is operating effectively.
I will bring the Senator’s concerns to the Minister regarding the appointment of an independent chair to lead the review who has the necessary expertise and ability to carry out the work in an objective manner. I assure the Senator that implementing the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 and ensuring access to services under the Act remains a priority for the Department of Health.