Speech of the Minister for Health and Children, Micheál Martin, T.D., on the publication of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment of the Constitution Bill

The proposal the Government is launching today addresses the complex issues surrounding the protection of unborn human life. At the same time it ensures that pregnant women continue to have access to all necessary medical treatment if problems arise in the course of their pregnancy.

Irish maternity services have a deservedly high reputation when it comes to caring for pregnant women and their unborn children. The Government is anxious that the law should protect best medical practice and remove any doubt about the legality of treatment doctors may consider necessary where rare, life-threatening medical conditions happen during pregnancy.

Since the Government came into office, we have engaged in exploring the issues in depth. We have listened to the many people and organisations with views on the protection of unborn life. We have considered ways of moving forward which can command the support of the people. The Bill published today is the latest step in that process.

The Government is aware, of course, that addressing these constitutional and legal issues may have little impact on Irish women who choose to travel abroad for abortions. Many of those who participated in the consultation and discussion process which preceded the production of the Green Paper and, later, the report of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution have recognised this also.

The study “Women and Crisis Pregnancy”, commissioned by the Department of Health and Children and carried out by the Department of Sociology in Trinity College was very useful in giving an understanding of the factors leading to crisis pregnancy and the experiences of women in this situation.

The All-Party Committee identified a range of issues to be addressed in a strategy to combat crisis pregnancy. It also pointed out that several Government Departments, state bodies and voluntary organisations have responsibilities for aspects of these issues. The complexity of the programmes needed and the co-ordination necessary for their success requires a single planning focus. It proposed the establishment of an agency to draw up a strategy to combat crisis pregnancies, promote options (other than abortion) where a crisis pregnancy occurs and provide for post-abortion services. The Agency would also have responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the strategy.

Having considered the recommendation of the All-Party Committee, the Government has decided to set up a new statutory agency – The Crisis Pregnancy Agency. The Agency will draw up a national strategy to address crisis pregnancy. It will work with a wide range of organisations, not just in the health sector but also, for example, in education, employment and housing. The Government is providing €6.5m to fund the new Agency in 2002. It will be established for a period of ten years initially, as recommended by the All-Party Committee.

Preventative issues concerning education of young people and adults, as well as services appropriate to their needs and lifestyles, will be addressed. Much concern has been expressed about the need to make women more aware of their options, should they have a crisis pregnancy, and to enable them to consider these carefully and to assist them before making decisions about the course of action they want to take. This is another major area to be addressed by the Agency.

Women who have had an abortion also have real needs. They must be treated with compassion and understanding and that both their emotional and physical health needs are also attended to. Post-abortion counselling is, I know, already available from a number of agencies, but is not widely availed of. Similarly, although medical check-ups are advisable for women who have had an abortion, the sad fact is that many Irish women don’t avail of them. This is another area the agency will be asked to address, in order to ensure that women receive all the care and attention they need.

I would like to refer to another issue to which the All-Party Oireachtas Committee highlighted in its report. Concern was expressed that legislation on abortion might have implications for the use of the “morning after pill”. The Committee felt that any legal uncertainties that might exist in regard to the “morning after pill” (post-coital or emergency contraception) should be removed.

These treatments are intended to prevent pregnancy and, as such, do not come within the definition of abortion as set out in the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill. This legislation will therefore remove any doubts about the legality of emergency contraception in the form of the “morning after pill” and the post-coital IUD. The question of licensing any particular medicinal product will remain a matter for the Irish Medicines Board, the independent agency with responsibility in this area.

In conclusion, I would like to stress that the proposals for legislative and constitutional change which the Government is publishing today are only part of our response to the issue of crisis pregnancy. The dedicated agency will play a major role in the development of co-ordinated, responsive and appropriate services we hope will, over time, reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancies among Irish women and give women in this situation the widest possible range of assistance to help them cope. By putting these measures in place we hope to ensure that the numbers of Irish women seeking abortion abroad are kept to a minimum.

Speech by the Taoiseach Mr. Bertie Ahern T.D.

Press Release: Minister announces establishment of New Crisis Pregnancy Agency