I will begin by acknowledging all of the correspondence – emails, letters and phone calls – I have received, not just from my constituents but from all over Ireland and even from outside Ireland, expressing a wide range of views. Some were for repeal while others were against it, some were pro-choice, others were pro-life while still others held views in between. Regardless of my own views, I respect all of those views. I hope that the debate over the next few months will be respectful and dignified. The Minister of Health’s speech last night really set the tone in terms of dignity and respect and I hope the debate continues in that vein. Certainly at times we have seen a lack of respect and dignity relating to the matter of abortion. I know that there are very strongly held views, intense passion and commitment on all sides. I have listened to a wide range of views and have tried to be open to all of them. I have listened to women hurt by abortion, women who regretted having an abortion, women who were glad that they did not go ahead with an abortion, women for whom having an abortion was the right decision and women who regretted not being able to have an abortion in Ireland. The reality, as we know, is that Irish girls and women have had and are having abortions, legally or illegally. They are using the Internet to access medicines or are travelling to another jurisdiction for an abortion. The irony is that Irish women have the right to travel to have an abortion but do not have the right to have one here. Of course, it is only those Irish women who can afford it and who have the means that can travel for an abortion.
We have heard data over the last day or two which show that more than 3,000 women travelled to England and Wales in both 2015 and 2016 for an abortion. We do not know how many women travelled to other jurisdictions. It was very telling when the Minister gave details last night on each of the counties in Ireland. What was significant was the fact that women from every part of Ireland are travelling for abortions. We were also given figures for the numbers accessing abortion pills online. The women who travel abroad and those who use the online facilities are not getting medical care here in Ireland. We all know of difficulties that can arise for the women who travel. I have a terrible fear for those who access pills over the Internet, whether they are abortion or other types of pills, because the area is unregulated. There is no medical supervision of women who take these abortion pills and there can be negative consequences.
In both cases, if there are complications there can be a reluctance to seek medical services or counselling services here because of the stigma felt by women who have had abortions or used pills.
We gave the Citizens’ Assembly a job to do and it did it. Having been a member of the Constitutional Convention, I know the process. I am familiar with the round-table discussions, the engagement and the respectful listening to a wide range of views. There is time for questions and discussion and there is time to reflect before a vote is taken. I respect that process because I was part of it on another occasion. The citizen members of the Citizens’ Assembly and the Constitutional Convention were chosen professionally with a balance of age, gender, profession and socioeconomic background to ensure there was a good representation. I believe the assembly’s recommendations have to be taken on board in a referendum and in further legislation. I remind the House that 87% of members of the assembly recommended that Article 40.3.3° should not be retained, with 56% of members saying it should be replaced or amended and 57% of members saying it should be replaced with a constitutional provision authorising the Oireachtas to legislate to address the issues of termination of pregnancy, the rights of the unborn and the rights of pregnant women.
The current wording has been causing a great deal of difficulty for women and for the medical profession. Last weekend’s media coverage of the death of Peter Sutherland included some articles that highlighted such difficulties and referred to the doubts expressed by Mr. Sutherland at the time of the referendum about the wording that was being proposed. Those doubts were shared by his successor as Attorney General. All of them related to the unintended legal consequences, the complicated law case situations we have seen and the medical uncertainty we know about.
We know that abortions are carried out in Ireland. The current criminalisation affects the decision-making of doctors and nurses, who need to be able to make clinical and medical decisions without fear of ending up in prison. Pregnant women deserve the highest standards of medical care. I have paid particular attention to the views of members of the medical profession, many of whom have spoken out about the prescriptive and restrictive nature of the current law, which has been harmful to women. They have also highlighted the potential of the 14-year prison sentence that hangs over their profession.
I have met and listened to women who have had pregnancies affected by fatal foetal abnormalities. They told me about the stress and pain of knowing that their babies had little or no chance of life outside the womb. Those who decided to travel overseas for abortions had to contend with additional stress. I also met women who decided to continue with their pregnancies because they wanted to hold their babies for whatever amount of time possible, if indeed it was possible to do so for any period of time. Both groups deserve to get the medical care they need in Ireland.
We have not really heard the voice of the father. We have heard that women must be allowed to make decisions about their bodies, but I think the role of the father must also be taken on board. I have met and heard from fathers who did not want their partners to have terminations. They were prepared to take the baby on board when he or she was born. Equally, some fathers want terminations but their partners do not. While this is primarily an issue for women, there has to be a space for male voices.
I acknowledge the work of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. I appreciate that it was criticised by some people who felt that all views were not investigated thoroughly. I believe a referendum would give all our citizens an opportunity to have their say by voting. We live in a democracy. The results of the referendum, and whatever else follows, have to be respected.
One of the ancillary recommendations of the joint committee is that “improvements should be made in sexual health and relationship education, including the areas of contraception and consent, in primary and post-primary schools”. I suggest that awareness of one’s sexuality, assertiveness and self-esteem should also be part of sexual education programmes so that girls and boys have the comfort of saying “No”. As a former teacher, I am familiar with these programmes. They should be included in the social personal and health education programme, but that is very hit and miss. It depends on the school, on the principal and on other factors. It also depends on the willingness of the teacher to get involved, on the skill set of the teacher and on the extent to which he or she is comfortable with doing this work. Of course all of those factors are contingent on whether teachers have been trained in how to deliver these programmes. These classes cannot be an add-on to fill up teachers’ hours at second level.
There is a need to consider the role of outside agencies and community organisations in coming into schools to work on these programmes. I have been working with schools in my constituency on reducing substance misuse. I have made the point that intervention and awareness programmes need to be delivered in schools. The community needs to be involved in these programmes for the reasons I outlined when I spoke about teachers delivering sexual education programmes. There has been an increase in sexually transmitted diseases among young people, especially those who are under the influence of legal or illegal substances. We have numbers that show how many people avail of the services of the Rape Crisis Centre. Very sadly, some people do not avail of those services. That is the reality of life. I support the ancillary recommendation in this area.
Another ancillary recommendation of the joint committee relates to “improved access to reproductive healthcare services”, including “perinatal hospice care”. I think girls and women from lower socioeconomic groups lose out badly when it comes to access to reproductive health care.
It is interesting to read about the Netherlands, which has liberal abortion laws but low abortion rates. It has the highest rate of planned pregnancies in the EU. There are liberal and extensive education programmes in Dutch schools. Comprehensive health care and excellent counselling services are offered to people in the Netherlands with crisis pregnancies.
When we were debating Deputy Clare Daly’s Bill a few years ago, I said I was not in favour of abortion with no time limits. I am glad, therefore, to see that the recommendation refers to specific time limits. At that time, I was in favour of the availability of abortion for people who have been raped. Having read the committee’s report, I accept, for the reasons explained in the section of the report that sets out the difficulties relating to rape, that it would be unreasonable for a precondition to be included. I hope any girl or woman who has been raped would refer it to the authorities, but we know that does not always happen. We do not want to make these situations any more difficult. The decision has to be made between the girl or woman and her doctor. The medical quote that summed this up for me came from the master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr. Rhona Mahony, when she said: “What we as doctors require is clinical flexibility in order that women and their doctors can make appropriate decisions in the very difficult circumstances that arise from complications in pregnancy”.
It would be great if there were no unplanned pregnancies, crisis pregnancies or pregnancies with fatal foetal abnormalities in this country. I would love to live in such a country, but that is not the reality. The reality is that Irish girls and women are deciding to avail of abortion. They are doing so in a limited way here, but they are mainly doing so abroad by travelling to another jurisdiction or by accessing pills from other countries. It does not make sense to have the right to travel for an abortion without being able to avail of abortion services here. Ireland cannot leave it to the NHS and to private clinics in England, Wales and other jurisdictions to help Irish women who decide to have abortions.
As this has been such a divisive and difficult issue over the years, part of me thinks it might be positive to have a moratorium on further discussion and debate, especially given that so much has already been said. However, I appreciate that the public needs access to the information that was made available to the joint committee. I accept that a moratorium will not happen, so I suggest that we need to get on with the referendum. The recommendations of the joint committee should be put to the people to decide on them. We need to pursue that as soon as possible.
I have listened to people outlining the various reasons the referendum should be held in May. While I agree with that principle, I think it should apply to all referendums we hold in this country to encourage younger voters who take off for the summer months, perhaps to work abroad, to vote in such polls.
Last night, the Minister for Health said that girls and women facing crisis pregnancies are “left in a lonely and scary place” when they decide to travel overseas for abortions or to access abortion pills. It is also scary and lonely for those who continue with unplanned or unwanted pregnancies, particularly for young teenagers who become pregnant. All of those people deserve the best medical care in Ireland. They should be given the space to make the decisions that are best for them in conjunction with their doctors. They should be able to do so in a calm and non-judgmental atmosphere without coming under undue pressure to make decisions with which they are not comfortable.
The terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are not helpful because we all value life. However, we are also in favour of being able to make choices and decisions.