Speeches

Speech by Minister for Health Simon Harris, TD

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Introduction

Ceann Comhairle,

I move:

That Dáil Éireann declines to give the Bill a second reading in order that the Citizens’ Assembly, established by Resolutions of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, can conclude its deliberations on the 8th amendment which is the subject matter of this Bill, and report to the Oireachtas in the first half of 2017.

This Government gave a clear commitment on how it intended to examine the complex and important issue of the Eighth Amendment. Since our last debate on this issue in July, that commitment has been advanced.

The Citizens’ Assembly has now become a reality.It has held its first meeting. It will deal with the 8th Amendment as its first piece of work. And it, independently of this House, has declared its intention to report in the first half of next year. This morning, the Government confirmed a special Oireachtas Committee will be asked to respond to its recommendations within six months.

I concluded my contribution during the last debate on this issue by speaking as one of a generation who has never had an opportunity to vote on this. I begin tonight in that same place. Like all the others who have never had their say, I want mine. But I refuse to pretend it is as simple as those proposing this Bill present it.

I realise as keenly as anyone else the long and complex history of abortion debate in this country.

It is now more than 30 years since the Eighth Amendment was enacted following a bitter and divisive political debate and amid controversy about the meaning and effect of the new constitutional provision. It is 20 years since the Supreme Court confronted the issue in the urgent circumstances of the X case.

And, Ceann Comhairle, it is just four years since the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. And it is just three years since the last Government finally addressed the generational neglect of that Supreme Court ruling by passing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill to give effect to its judgement.

Despite the limited nature of that legislation, remember how it divided this House, political parties and people. Remember the differing points of view and difficult discussions it entailed.

Then, as now, this country, and this House, is bound by the Constitution. A referendum was held in 1983, and regardless of one’s views, resulted in the adoption of a provision which became Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, now commonly known as the Eighth Amendment.

As you are all aware, Article 40.3.3 reads as follows:

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees by its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

The Private Member’s Bill before the House this evening provides for a referendum to delete the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

Tabling a referendum bill is the easy part. Telling the Irish people what would replace that Constitutional amendment in law or elsewhere is the difficult work we have to do.

As the proponents of this Bill know, and as I know, to hold a referendum you must do your homework and properly engage with and inform the Irish people. We saw it with the Children’s Referendum. We saw it with the Marriage Equality Referendum.

It cannot be ignored that there are significant policy and legal issues involved in changing the Eighth Amendment. Simply deleting it opens up major questions for our existing laws and the future legislative framework which would apply. Important questions – questions which must be answered.

Simply deleting it raises significant implications for medical practice, and the ethical codes of professional regulatory bodies.

Simply deleting it takes no account of the differences of opinion in our society.

There are those who believe that the X case was wrongly decided and that there should be another referendum to row back on the right to an abortion in the case of suicide. However, two referendums in 1992 and 2002 tried to remove suicide as a ground and were defeated.

Recent public debate has indicated public support for termination of pregnancies in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. However, other groups would like to see much broader grounds for termination.

So, let’s not pretend this is simple.

As Minister for Health, I understand that the inclusion of Article 40.3.3 in our Constitution has caused much hardship and uncertainty for women who experience a crisis pregnancy and for our health care professionals who provide a clinical service to them. I am not satisfied with this situation.

Our last debate in this House on the issue of abortion was on foot of legislative proposals by Deputy Mick Wallace on the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities.

While I was not able to support that legislation because of the constitutional reality, as we listen to the stories of women who receive a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, we know that the current constitutional and statute law causes added distress to women and families who are already distraught.

I would like to change this situation as soon as possible, but we have to provide the public with comprehensive information about the legal and policy changes that would follow upon a change to the Constitution. Clearly, if this Bill were to pass here tonight, it would do so both in a policy and legal vacuum.

For these reasons I would ask that we give the Citizen’s Assembly the time it needs to consider the issue and report back to the Oireachtas.

The establishment and terms of reference of the Assembly were approved by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas only in July. The Assembly is required to consider the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution (Article 40.3.3) and report with its recommendations on the matter to the Oireachtas in the first half of 2017.

Judge Mary Laffoy, a Justice of the Supreme Court is chairing the Assembly comprised of 99 citizens randomly chosen from the population. The first meeting of the Assembly took place in Dublin Castle on 15th of October and a list of dates has been agreed to discuss the Eighth Amendment over the next number of months.

I want to thank the 99 women and men who, on all our behalves, are undertaking this mammoth task. It is a true example of civic service and you have the gratitude and support of many.

The Assembly’s recommendations will be acted upon by a Special Oireachtas Committee which will be asked to report in six months. The Government is asking the Business Committee of the Oireachtas to lay the preparatory groundwork for this committee so that it can begin its work without delay.

Conclusion

Colleagues, I know that the time this will take is too long as far as some people both inside and outside of this House are concerned but, just as the last Government addressed the Supreme Court Judgement in the X case after 20 years of neglect and avoidance, the current Government will address the issue of the Eighth Amendment.

But we want to do so in the best way. We must do the important preparatory work to properly inform debate, to facilitate considered and respectful dialogue, to try to build consensus across Irish society.

I believe the Citizens’ Assembly is that best way and that it will do the Irish people a great service in examining all of the complex issues involved.

Although I cannot support the Bill before us this evening, I welcome the opportunity to debate this again in this House. In particular, I welcome the changed tone which has been noticeable in our discussions, even in the last three years.

I would like to especially pay tribute to those who have come forward and told their very personal stories. Those stories have shaped my own views and remind us all of how real people experience our laws and their effect on medical practice.

I wish I could tell them we could solve this tomorrow but that simply isn’t true.

I recognise that colleagues on all side of this House come to this debate with deeply-held principles but, for my part, I cannot do those women the disservice of pretending this question can be answered with one word, or three words, or one Bill.

It is on this basis that the Government moves its reasoned amendment in order that the Citizens’ Assembly, established by Resolutions of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, can conclude its deliberations and makes its recommendations to this House.