Statements on the Report of the Expert Group

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Dáil Éireann, 6th December 2012

Few subjects in Irish public discourse are as controversial as the subject of abortion, which is the focus of the Report of the Expert Group. Views are polarised on both sides and no solution will ever be found that will satisfy the demand of these polar opposites.

However, it is worth noting that the tone of the current debate is much more reasoned than previous debates on the topic and I believe that this debate has been led by those in the centre positions, as opposed to the extremists on either side, which is most welcome as it will allow the important issues at stake to be teased out in a reasoned manner.

At the outset, I must state that I have no particular expertise in medical or legal terms, but as a member of the legislature who represents the people of East Galway, I must take this opportunity to outline my stance on this particularly difficult issue.

I don’t believe in having to fall within narrow parameters of being pro-life or pro-choice as I believe that this obscures rather than illuminates the issues. I have no issue or concern with providing legal clarity for doctors dealing with a mother whose life is at risk, which is the least we should be providing for.

I do have issues regarding the issue of potential suicide as a reason for abortion and wouldn’t welcome the introduction of a very liberal abortion regime, such as that which exists in England.

It is two decades since the Supreme Court made its decision on the X case and I believe that 2013 should not pass without this Government putting legislation on the status books which provides clarity for doctors dealing with complex medical issues.

The Report of the Expert Group is an important document as it brings forward the views of experts in the field of obstetrics, psychiatry, general practice, law and public policy and was chaired by a High Court Judge.

It considered the A, B and C v Ireland judgements in the European Court of Human Rights and put forward various courses of action. The A, B and C cases were brought forward to the European Court of Human Rights three years ago by three women who alleged breach of their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights in regard to abortion in Ireland. All three had unintentionally become pregnant and travelled to the UK for abortions.

The judgement in that case found that the Irish Constitution is not inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights and accepted the Supreme Court interpretation of the X case, which found that it is lawful to terminate a pregnancy in Ireland if it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by a termination of the pregnancy.

The court found that there had been no violation of rights under the Convention in terms of Ms. A and Ms. B, but in respect of the third applicant, found that Ireland had failed to respect the applicant’s private life as there was no procedure for her to establish whether she qualified for a lawful termination of pregnancy in accordance with Irish law.

This is the nub of the difficulty which now faces the Irish legislature. The court ruled that no procedures have been laid down in Irish law which can measure or determine risk and this has led to uncertainty and it stated that further legal clarity was required.

This further legal clarity must be provided and I believe can and will be provided by the Irish Government, but I do not accept that the Judgement of the European Court of Human Rights means that Ireland has to legislate to introduced a liberal abortion regime.

Ireland has signed and ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and thus is under a legal obligation to implement the judgement of the European Court, an obligation that successive governments have sidestepped because it was not politically expedient.

The issue can no longer be sidestepped, particularly in the wake of the death of Savita Halappanavar in University Hospital Galway. Ms. Halapannavar presented to the hospital 17 weeks into her pregnancy and was miscarrying the baby. She later died of blood poisoning after enduring days of pain and her treatment is now the subject of multiple enquiries and thus I will not comment further on that particular case.

However, her death prompted a debate, which often centred on the dilemmas facing doctors operating in a legal fog, unsure of the ramifications of their actions. What the debate really should have focused on was the dilemmas facing women presenting to hospitals in such difficulties and their rights in terms of treatment. The report of the Expert Group which is now before us was in train before Savita’s tragic death, but her death has brought home to people on all sides of the debate, the human tragedies that lie behind all the legal terminology.

Successive Governments have shied away from this emotive, controversial and difficult subject, but when the highest court in the land has recommended that clarity is needed, and the European Court of Human Rights has echoed that call, we as legislators have to recognise that and deal with the problem presented to us.