Perhaps unsurprisingly, this issue is the one on which I have received the most correspondence since my election to the House. I have received emails, letters, postcards, telephone calls and messages on social media. I have met hundreds of people, sometimes in Leinster House, but mostly in my constituency and at clinics. I was the only politician from the constituencies of Galway West and East to attend a meeting in the Westwood Hotel in Galway on the May bank holiday Monday to listen to and answer questions from pro-life groups. The people I met were compassionate, interested and concerned and I spent an hour and a half on my feet explaining, defending and answering questions on this subject. I have taken the time to listen to almost everyone and every shade of opinion on this most sensitive and complex matter.
Notwithstanding the diversity of views which abortion prompts, it is helpful to start with the position of most citizens. Most citizens expect that all that is humanly possible will be done to help expectant mothers and unborn children, should assistance be required. Irrespective of whether a person contacting me has been pro-life, pro-choice or whatever other labels are used, I have made it abundantly and unequivocally clear that, collectively, as citizens and legislators, we have a duty to uphold the principles and vindicate the rights espoused in the Constitution.
Defending the Constitution requires accepting the interpretation of the law of the chief interpreters of Bunreacht na hÉireann, the Supreme Court. The sole purpose of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill is to codify and set out the legal position as it already stands. It is nothing less and certainly nothing more. As I have in many meetings and interviews, I reaffirm my pro-life credentials. The Bill will not lead to abortion on demand, to use that phrase. If I believed otherwise, I would not support it. I dispute the accusation that to be in favour of the Bill while claiming to be pro-life is to involve oneself in what one colleague called “verbal gymnastics”.
Listening to the contentious – often fraught – debate, one might receive the impression that in the X case the Supreme Court was concerned solely with suicide. It is worth reiterating what the court stated in the X case judgment. It held:
The danger [arising from a risk to the life of a woman] has to represent a substantial risk to her life though this does not necessarily have to be an imminent danger of instant death. The law does not require the doctor to wait until the mother is in peril of immediate death.
To be clear, the court stated the risk to the life of the woman included the danger of suicide.
Looking back at our recent history, I regret to say I cannot report that we in Ireland have covered ourselves in glory in addressing the issue of mental health. To be blunt, mental illness and its treatment have come a poor second to physical illness. The stigma attached to mental illness, which persists to this day, is testament to this. To our shame, mental illness was treated until recent decades by locking a person away – out of sight, out of mind.
I am deeply dismayed, discouraged and unsettled by the attitude of some citizens inside and outside Leinster House on the connection between this legislation and mental illness. To borrow a phrase from a recent mental wellness campaign, mental health matters. Sadly, to some, mental health matters, but not if one is a woman and pregnant.
The dismissive attitude towards psychology and psychiatry, both of which are measured, verifiable and vital branches of medicine, has been astounding. During the second round of extensive hearings by the Joint Committee on Health and Children the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Health, Dr. Tony Holohan, made certain pertinent and valid remarks which ought to be remembered by all involved in this debate. He stated:
Psychiatry is a clinical science based on scientific method and research. It is not some form of hocus-pocus that operates without evidence … We simply cannot say the circumstance of a real and substantial risk to a woman’s life could never occur as a consequence of suicidal ideation.
However, some commentators are absolutely convinced that once this legislation is passed, the women of Ireland will suddenly pretend to be suicidal simply to access an abortion. The contention is preposterous. It is disgraceful and demonstrates a complete lack of trust and regard for the women of Ireland. Many people have cited the situation in the United Kingdom which does not have a written constitution and its legislation provides for abortion where there is a risk to the health of a woman. In Ireland such a provision would require a referendum to change the Constitution.
The undeniable and inescapable fact is that if suicide is excluded from the Bill, we will not be giving effect to the constitutional rights the Supreme Court has already found to apply.
Despite assertions to the contrary, the law is not being altered. Neither the Supreme Court nor the European Court of Human Rights has sought a change to the law. Rather, both institutions have sought clarity through a legislative or regulatory framework which would clearly sets out rights as they apply. Respect for the law and the Constitution concerns not just decisions of the Supreme Court but also Article 40.3.3° which was inserted on foot of the eighth amendment to the Constitution. Article 40.3.3° requires that the right to life of both the mother and the unborn is vindicated. The Bill has been framed with this in mind and will operate within that context. As an additional safeguard, the Minister for Health will be empowered to act where the provisions of Article 40.3.3° are not being observed.
There are two other important points which must not be forgotten. First, a termination of pregnancy will be permitted when it is the only option available. Second, medical professionals will be obliged to take every action possible to safeguard the life of the unborn where compatibility with life outside the womb has been reached.
If the Bill is passed, it will not end the abortion debate. There will still be concern regarding the right to abortion for women who have been subjected to the most heinous crimes of rape and incest. The legislation does not provide for the exceptionally tragic matter of fatal foetal abnormalities, whereby an unborn child is incompatible with life outside the womb. Such cases have been deemed to fall outside the current constitutional provisions and, as such, can only be dealt with by the people in a referendum.
The debate will continue long after the passing of this legislation by the Dáil. While the legislation is about providing clarity and setting out visibly the position of everyone concerned, I fear there is little clarity for women in the aforementioned situations. These are tragic circumstances for any expectant mother to find herself in. I have heard all sides on these matters. If they are put to the people in a future referendum, there will be a serious and prolonged debate.
We have witnessed the consequences of a lack of clarity before. While there were several factors in the untimely death of Savita Halappanavar, nobody can deny that legal uncertainty contributed to the tragedy. Medical professionals were unsure of when an intervention could legally be made. It is regrettable that some in the House have suggested clarity, as provided for in the Bill, would not have played a role in facilitating speedier intervention in this tragic case.
The Government parties – the Labour Party and Fine Gael – committed to addressing the lack of certainty and clarity. Following much consideration and examination, many meetings and reports by numerous groups, the creation of a statutory framework by way of legislation and regulation has been deemed the best way forward.
I have no doubt that the contents of my speech will be scrutinised, examined and, perhaps, used against me by some. I make no apologies for being against abortion for lifestyle or social reasons. I reaffirm that I am against a liberal abortion regime in the State, to which the Bill will not lead. However, I make no apology either for supporting legislation which will vindicate rights already found to apply.