Friday, June 28, 2013

Sinn Féin will support Bill

Yesterday I contributed to the second stage on the debate of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013. The first Dáil vote on the Bill is now expected after Order of Business on Tuesday after 5pm.

For those interested in the progress of this important legislation below are my remarks.

“Minister, I am personally not in favour of abortion.

That is my strongly held view.

But I am not here to legislate for me.

Especially not on this issue.

I have a duty and responsibility to legislate for citizens – in this case pregnant women whose lives are at risk.

So, I and Sinn Fein will support the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill.

Sinn Féin believes that Irish society has a responsibility to not only address the issue of abortion but also to address the fact that thousands of Irish women travel to Britain each year for abortions.

We also believe that all possible means of education and support services should be put in place to prevent crisis pregnancies.

Sinn Féin believes that the way to tackle the issue of abortion is by way of comprehensive education, full access to child-care and comprehensive support services, including financial support for single mothers.

And that full information and non-directive pregnancy counselling should be freely available.

I am very strongly opposed to any attempt to criminalise or to be judgmental of women who have had abortions.

Who here in this chamber or indeed outside this chamber has the right to judge these women?

I am concerned that this Bill could potentially lead to a woman, in whatever circumstances, being sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.

The fact is that the lives of some women are placed at a real and substantial risk due to their pregnancy.

In these casesonly a termination of the pregnancy, as distinct from the termination of the life of the unborn, though that can be a consequence of the intervention, is going to save their lives.

This is already accepted practice in this state.

It is also the current legal position, as is an intervention where the woman's life is at real and substantial risk due to the threat of suicide.

If passed into law this Bill will legalise a termination only where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including suicide.

This legislation has been a long time coming and the issue which gives rise to it has been at the centre of considerable debate and controversy for many years.

The tragic death last year of Savita Halappanavar, and the evidence emerging out of the inquest, refocused attention on this issue.

It also underlined the urgent need for legal clarity for doctors and protection for pregnant women.

The HSE report on Savita’sdeath was published in the last few weeks and on the same day as this Bill and because of its direct relevance to the legislation I wish to comment on it.

I take the opportunity to again extend deepest sympathy to Praveen Halappanavar and all the relatives and friends of Savita.

Like the outcome of the inquest, the report has far-reaching implications.

It is extremely serious and distressing that the report found that Savita’s death resulted from inadequate assessment and monitoring of her condition and a failure to offer all management options to her.

University College Hospital Galway’s non-adherence to clinical guidelines relating to the prompt and effective management of sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock from when it was first diagnosed, significantly contributed to her death.

We may never be able to say definitively that this Bill, if enacted at the time of Savita’s hospitalisation, would have saved her life.

However, there are good grounds, based on expert evidence, for believing that this would indeed have been the case, as a termination would have been regarded as a life-saving option to which Savita should have had timely access.

The background to this debate goes back further than the death of Savitato 1992 when a 14 year old girl became pregnant as a result of rape and was suicidal.

The then Attorney General sought an injunction preventing the girl travelling with her parents to have an abortion abroad.

This case – known as the X-case - went to court and the Supreme Court ruled that ‘a termination of pregnancy is lawful if it can be shown that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Irish State violates the rights of pregnant women by refusing to allow them to receive a lawful termination in the event that a pregnancy could threaten their lives.

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights made it clear that there is an onus on the State to legislate under the terms of the 1937 Constitution and the decision in the X case.

Regrettably, previous governments failed to face up to this issue.

It has taken 21 years for this legislation to be produced.

It is also a fact that there are sharply divided opinions on this issue.

This was clearly evident during the recent Health Committee hearings.

Most of the focus in those hearings was on the issue of suicide with a number of medical people and politicians giving evidence that abortion is not a ‘treatment’ for suicide.

But nobody is contending that it is.

They also claimed that this could open up the possibility of large numbers of women using the threat of suicide to secure a legal abortion.

I believe that these arguments are disrespectful to women and impossible in the light of the legislation that is proposed.

I share former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness’s view that the proposals are ‘sufficiently rigorous’ to ensure that very few cases will in fact be dealt with in respect of the threat of suicide.

For our part Sinn Féin has set out our clear position on abortion.

Our policy, which is not in favour of abortion, has been settled policy for us for some time.

In the Assembly we opposed and voted against the proposed extension of the 1967 British Act to the North.

We believe that all possible means of education and support services for women should be put in place.

The legislation being proposed by the government is about addressing the issue of a pregnant woman whose life is at risk and who requires a medical termination, and the need for legal clarity for doctors involved in such a procedure.

It does this in the context of existing constitutional law as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the X case.

Sinn Fein has stated consistently that legislation in line with the X case judgement and in compliance with the ABC case judgement and the Expert Group recommendations is required.

In fact it is long overdue.

There is now a very widely held view in Irish society that legislation along the lines originally set out in the Heads of the Bill, and now in this legislation, is necessary.

This is not perfect legislation.

But notwithstanding this and judged in the round and taking into account the pressing need for long overdue legislative certainty, Sinn Féin will support this legislation.

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