Speech by Mr Simon Harris TD, Minister for Health – Report of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution – Dáil Éireann
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Every now and then an issue comes before us which challenges us to think about what kind of a country we want to be and what kind of a society we are. An issue that we struggle with, that may be difficult to talk about, but that is not going to go away. Today is a moment where we, the members of the 32nd Dáil, come face to face with such an issue.
In doing so, we come face to face with our history. A history that continues to unfold and continues to hold up a mirror in which we sometimes don’t like what we see. Whether it is the damp cold of the Magdalene Laundries creeping into our bones, or the sundered silence of Mother & Baby Homes being broken, or the glimpses of what was an all-too-acceptable culture exposed by the Kerry Babies case – all of these things are connected. Connected by the way we as a country have treated women, particularly pregnant women.
I think of another cold January like this one in 1984 when the 15-year-old Ann Lovett gave birth alone to her son beneath a statue of Our Lady. The death of Ann and her baby son in these stark and lonely circumstances is a memory that chills us still and one we should not forget.
We now arrive at another moment on a long journey. Starting with the insertion of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution in 1983. Through the court cases that made us think about the pregnant victims of rape and incest. Through the bravery of families faced with fatal foetal abnormalities who made us think about the particular cruelties we add to their tragedies. And after all of this, perhaps arriving at the realisation that each crisis pregnancy is different and each involves a real woman facing a very difficult and very personal decision.
Real women like the 36 from County Carlow who travelled to the UK for an abortion in 2016, or the 38 from Mayo, the 69 women from Tipperary, the 85 from Wicklow, the 241 from Cork or the 1,175 women from Dublin.
Women from every county in the Republic of Ireland travelled to the UK in 2016. I think we need to acknowledge them all.
49 from Kerry and 130 from Kildare. 21 from Leitrim and 20 from Roscommon. 69 from Wexford.
33 from Cavan and 15 from Monaghan. 99 from Limerick. 53 from Clare. 38 from Westmeath. 63 from Donegal. 113 from Galway. 44 from Kilkenny. 42 from Laois. 83 from Louth and 100 from Meath. 28 from Offaly and 29 from Sligo. 16 from Longford. 56 from Waterford.
In 2016, 3,265 Irish women travelled to the UK alone and we know that Irish women travel to other countries like the Netherlands too. Over 1,200 of the women who went to the UK were aged between 30 and 39 and over 1,500 were aged between 20 and 29. 255 were aged 40 or over. 10 were girls under the age of 16. 230 were teenagers. Over half of the women who travelled were married, in a civil partnership, or in a relationship. 85% of the women were between 3 and 12 weeks pregnant. It is estimated that at least 170,000 Irish women have travelled to other countries for abortions since 1980.
These are not faceless women. They are our friends and neighbours, sisters, cousins, mothers, aunts, wives. Each woman is dealing with her own personal situation and making what is a deeply difficult decision.
Because this time around, let’s be honest about this – this is not a decision or a procedure that anyone undertakes lightly. Women agonise about it. Women consider every possibility for dealing with the particular crisis facing them.
And sometimes they arrive at the conclusion that there is no other option for them but to terminate their pregnancy.
When they arrive at that difficult decision, the country we live in, the country we hope has come a long way from the dark events that continue to haunt this Chamber, tells them to get their care elsewhere.
In 1992, we formalised the right of Irish women to travel for an abortion and to obtain information about it, but we’ve been temporarily exporting women in crisis for a lot longer than that. I can’t help but wonder what we would have done if we didn’t have a neighbouring island to help us turn a blind eye. And sometimes turning a blind eye is the same as turning your back.
We need now to seek to build a society which accepts our own challenges and addresses them honestly, maturely and openly. One which does not seek to deny reality or to outsource it to another country. One which does not reject women at the most vulnerable moments in their lives.
As I stand before this House today at the commencement of what will in time be seen as an historic debate, I am fully aware of the sensitivies and complexities of this issue. I want to acknowledge the deeply held, genuine views on all sides of the House and throughout the country.
No matter what may divide us, I accept that all of us are trying to do what is right. All of us are guided by our own conscience; our own humanity.
Some of us have changed our views over the years. My own views have changed and been formed by listening – listening to women and to doctors, and coming to recognise some hard realities. Some of us bear the scars of past debates and fear what’s to come.
This time, I firmly believe that it is possible for us to have a respectful debate on the issue. Don’t call that naïve. Don’t dismiss the idea that we can maturely recognise that each of us has deeply personal and genuinely held views, all of which deserve to be heard, to be understood and to be respected. It is an issue that troubles most of us as individuals. For some of us, it challenges us to hold what appear to be conflicting views simultaneously. Which of us doesn’t value and love human life, and wish to see it protected? Name-calling, pigeon-holing, stereotyping – these tactics need to be consigned to history. They have only led to paralysis, fear and division.
It will require effort and attention from all of us but it is so important that everyone has the chance to hear clearly so that when, as a nation, we come to make the next decision on this issue we make an informed one.
We do so as a country with a particularly complex past which in fact dates back to 1861 when abortion was a felony under the Offences against the Person Act. A felony with a sentence of penal servitude for life.
In more recent decades, it has been an issue dominated by referendums and court cases. 1983 saw the first referendum. In 1992 there was another with three questions. Legislation followed in 1995.
A third referendum on abortion was held in 2002 seeking to overturn the X case but was defeated.
In 2014 the issue came before this House again when we commenced the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.
I remember vividly that debate and some of the offensive comments about floodgates opening and language that seemed to suggest women would fake a threat to their own lives to obtain a termination. Quite unbelievable really. None of this has come to pass, The reports laid before this House bear that out. Since the passing of that law there has been a clear legal basis for abortion in Ireland, but it has become clear that this Oireachtas can go no further without constitutional change.
Other members have tried to bring forward legislation, thoughtful legislation to assist families with a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality for example. I have been the Minister to respond to those Private Members Bills but on each occasion it has been clear that without the repeal of the Eighth Amendment we as an Oireachtas could not addresss these issues.
So abortion is a reality for women living in Ireland but not just women in the limited circumstances in which it is legal under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, nor for the women who travel to other countries.
There are also now new realities. The Oireachtas Committee heard evidence of abortion pills now being bought on the internet and used by women in this country without medical supervision.
Research shows a 62% increase in the number of women from Ireland contacting one online provider over a five year period, from 548 in 2010 to 1438 in 2015. And that’s just one provider.
Can we just pause and picture what this is telling us? Is it acceptable to any of us that women are once again left in a lonely and scary place sending off for a pill to be sent through the post instead of being able to access the medical advice and support they need? This is happening in Ireland today. That’s a fact. How can we ignore it? How can we consider it alright? If it is the sad reality that we have been exporting this issue, are we now accepting that women must import their own solutions?
I want to turn now to the substance of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment, and to commend all the members for their work and thank them all for the contributions they made. I wish to thank Senator Noone, in particular, for her calm and balanced handling of the issue as Chair.
We as an Oireachtas asked these colleagues to do a very important body of work, to listen to experts, to hear evidence and to report back to us. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the time and dedication they applied to their task.
I would also like to commend the Chair of the Citizens’ Assembly, Justice Mary Laffoy, and the members for their careful deliberations and to acknowledge their valuable contribution.
The Citizens Assembly and the Committee have given us the model for addressing this issue in a rational and measured way, and it is one we should follow.
I want to recognise that the recommendations contained in the Committee’s report represent the views of the majority of members, but that there was not unanimous agreement on them. I respect the views of those who dissent from the recommendations but I do believe they are the basis on which we must proceed on this issue.
The main conclusion of the Committee’s work is that change is needed to extend the grounds for lawful termination of pregnancy in the State. In order to effect that change, the Committee recommended Article 40.3.3 should be removed from the Constitution.
The Committee then went on to make recommendations on the grounds on which termination of pregnancy should be permitted in Ireland, if Article 40.3.3 was repealed.
They recommend extending the law on abortion to cover cases where the health of a woman is concerned, cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and a broader legal regime that allows abortions where the woman seeks it from her medical practitioner if her pregnancy is under 12 week gestation.
I am working with my Chief Medical Officer and officials, and the Attorney General to consider how best to translate these recommendations into legislation should that be the wish of the Irish people. It is my intention that in the event of a referendum as much information as possible would be available to people.
While it is understandable the focus has been on the committee’s recommendations regarding the Eighth Amendment, the Committee didn’t only make recommendations on termination of pregnancy but also on the services and supports that should be available to women.
I am fully committed to ensuring that all women accessing maternity services should receive the same standard of safe, high quality care. Every woman, from every corner of Ireland should expect, and be able to access, the maternity services she needs. I am confident that through the implementation of the National Maternity Strategy, Creating a Better Future Together, the quality outcomes envisaged by the Committee will be realised.
Officials in my Department, under the chairmanship of the Chief Medical Officer, have now established a group to address and formulate an effective and comprehensive response to the issues raised by the Committee in their ancillary recommendations.
We have made other progress which provides the base for delivering the kind of integrated care women and their deserve. We have established the National Women & Infants’ Health Programme. We now have HIQA’s Standards for Safer Better Maternity Services and new HSE National Standards for Bereavement Care, to ensure clinical and counselling services are in place to support all women and families in all pregnancy loss situations. The HSE’s Positive Options crisis pregnancy counselling service is also available in 50 centres nationwide.
As someone born three years after the 1983 referendum on the Eighth Amendment, I never imagined I might one day be the Minister for Health responsible for a referendum on its repeal.
I come at it from a perspective that I think was sadly absent in 1983 and that is from the perspective of women’s health care.
In the Ministry I have the honour to hold, it is my duty to work to ensure that people in Ireland receive the highest possible standards of care, and to protect and promote the health of our people under the laws of our land.
I realise this issue challenges us, causes us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and makes us uncomfortable as we collectively wrestle with what is at its core in fact a very personal, private matter.
Women become pregnant and it is a joyous thing for many. But it is a terrifying thing for some and a tragic thing for others. Irish women are driven to find their own solutions. Sometimes they put themselves at risk in doing so. As things stand they are often left without help, advice or support at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives.
I hope as a country we can no longer tolerate a law which denies care and understanding to women who are our friends, our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our wives.
Ultimately, there is always a deeply personal, private story behind each individual case which I believe is a matter for a woman and her doctor. I believe the Irish people trust women and they trust doctors to make these difficult decisions.
I look forward to a constructive debate on the issues raised by the Committee here and in the Seanad. I hope we can show here that this debate can take place in an atmosphere of respect for each others’ views so that the same is possible in the context of a referendum campaign.
After this debate concludes, I expect to return to Government in the coming weeks with a series of proposals which I believe can deliver a referendum by the end of May or early June should the Oireachtas facilitate that.
I do not doubt that, as long as I remain a member of this House, I will continue to witness moments in this Chamber that remind us of darker times in our history. But let this be a different type of moment. Let this be a moment people will look back on as one where their representatives confronted one of the most complex issues we have faced as country with clarity, with compassion and with care.