The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was debated in the Dail on Thursday, June 20th, 2013. In his contribution, Mick raised some of the many concerns he has with it, such as the threat of imprisoning women and doctors for up to 14 years, the failure to include provision for fatal foetal abnormalities and Section 9 covering pregnant women who are suicidal. You can watch his speech here or read the transcript below.
This Bill is important symbolically but, in truth, very few women in Ireland will benefit from the legislation. Very few women will avail of abortion in Ireland because of this Bill. Women who require medical treatment will continue to be exported out of this country under a veil of silence - hidden, stigmatised, and away from the support network of family and friends. The same mentality that saw women incarcerated behind the walls of the Magdalen laundries, unsupported and hidden from public view, will continue to prevail in Ireland.
I am glad the legislation has arrived. We regret that it does not provide for more comprehensive provision of abortion where a woman's life is in danger or in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, which would have been possible even within the limitations of the current constitutional restrictions.
It is ironic that the legislation was published the same day as the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, appeared before an Oireachtas committee to discuss the Government's suicide awareness strategy. It is clear from this Bill that the Government's concern for those at risk of suicide does not extend to pregnant women. Under this Bill, a suicidal pregnant woman could potentially have to deal with seven medical practitioners before she is granted access to an abortion.
In A, B and C v. Ireland, the European Court of Human Rights expressed concern about the absence of an effective and accessible domestic procedure in Ireland for establishing whether some pregnancies pose a real and substantial medical risk to the life of the mother. I ask the Minister to explain how the proposal around suicide in this Bill constitutes an effective and accessible procedure. The Government should be mindful of other case law from the European Court of Human Rights such as the 2007 Polish case in which the court stated, "once the legislature decides to allow abortion, it must not structure its legal framework in a way which would limit real possibilities to obtain it". To quote Noeleen Hartigan of Amnesty International Ireland, for a law to be meaningful, it must be accessible.
The proposed Bill falls well short of international human rights standards on women's reproductive rights. In my view, the proposal for suicidal, pregnant women in this Bill is barbaric. It is tantamount to torture. It tells women mental health is not real health. It tells them the State does not trust them, that they must be interrogated and prove themselves not to be liars. The Bill is based on the premise that women are manipulative and untrustworthy. It is an insult to them. No more than two medical practitioners should be required to assess a woman in such a situation. The Minister's proposal is neither effective nor accessible for pregnant women.
What are the options for a suicidal pregnant woman who would rather not put herself through this inquisition? If possible, she may travel abroad to seek a termination, which involves a significant financial cost, and God knows money is scarce in this age of austerity, or she may, like thousands of other women, order the abortion pill on-line and self-administer it at home in Ireland. The Irish State ignores the former option but will potentially imprison her for up to 14 years for the latter. The level of hypocrisy is shocking.
The severe criminal penalties for women and doctors in the legislation are completely out of step with international best practice. Not only are they cruel and unduly harsh, they are ineffective because research has shown criminalisation does not reduce the number of abortions. Only this week in The Irish Times, Dr. Peadar O'Grady wrote:
A study published in the Lancet medical journal in 2012 reports that restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower rates of abortion. The region with the highest rate, 32 abortions per thousand women aged 15-44, is Latin America, where 95 per cent of abortions are illegal. The region with the lowest, 12 abortions per thousand, is western Europe, where abortion is available on broad grounds and almost all are safe and legal...Unsafe abortion, by untrained staff in unsuitable facilities, happens where there is restricted access to legal abortion services and is one of the top three causes of maternal mortality in the world. One of the reasons Ireland can boast such low levels of maternal mortality is that we have access to safe and legal abortion, mainly in the UK.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, has called on states to decriminalise abortion. He said, "Criminal laws and other legal restrictions on sexual and reproductive health may have a negative impact on the right to health in many ways, including by interfering with human dignity. Respect for dignity is fundamental to the realisation of all human rights. Dignity requires that individuals are free to make personal decisions without interference from the state, especially in an area as important and intimate as sexual and reproductive health." Criminalisation generates and perpetrates stigma. Criminal laws and other legal restrictions disempower women who may be deferred from taking steps to protect their health to avoid liability and out of fear of stigmatisation. The likely effects of the criminal penalties in the legislation is that they will make women afraid to disclose information to their doctors about previous abortions and to seek medical assistance in the event of complications arising from an illegal abortion. Section 22 must be removed from the Bill.
According the latest opinion poll in The Irish Times, 83% of voters support abortion where the fetus is not capable of surviving outside the womb. For those of us in this Chamber who have taken the time to listen to the harrowing experiences of women forced to terminate much wanted pregnancies abroad due to fatal fetal abnormalities, it is difficult to understand why the Minister refuses to cover these circumstances in the legislation. As has been stated repeatedly, there are many strong and convincing arguments that abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality could be included in this legislation without the need for constitutional referendum. The Government argued before the European Court of Human Rights in 2005 that given the circumstances the Irish courts were unlikely to interpret Article 40°3.3 of the Constitution with remorseless logic. Case law form the European Court of Human Rights indicates that the Council of Europe member states must ensure women seeking lawful terminations are not exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment, contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has argued that the current treatment of women with pregnancies involving a defined set of fatal fetal abnormalities potentially falls foul of Article 3 of the Constitution. I commend the families of the campaign group Termination for Medical Reasons, who have worked tirelessly to make legislators and the public aware of this issue and who have shared their deeply personal experiences with us.
Ultimately we must ask if the Bill complies with Ireland's obligation with the European Court of Human Rights' judgment in the A, B and C v. Ireland case. Does it comply with the European Convention on Human Rights or international human rights standards generally? It is doubtful that it does for the reasons I have already mentioned. This was an opportunity for the Government to break with the past and take a real step forward. It was an opportunity to produce practical, accessible legislation for women whose lives are at risk because of pregnancy. It is a lost opportunity.