Workers Party Political Statement
on Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013.
The Workers’ Party welcomed the recent publication
of the Heads of Bill for the Protection of Life during Pregnancy (PLDP) Bill 2013, as a necessary first step to legislate
for the now 21-year old decision of the Supreme Court in the X case.
The legislative process is now in motion,
and the present three-day hearings at the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Health should be the start of a two-month process that
will result in legislation being in place before the summer recess.
However it is very clear that a vocal and
reactionary minority within Fine Gael, with the total support of the catholic hierarchy and extremist pressure groups like
Youth Defence and the Iona Institute, are intent on using the entire legislative process, and these hearings in particular,
on making this legislation even more restrictive than it already is.
It is more than 20 years since the Supreme
Court judgement in the X case clarified that under the constitution abortion is legal where a woman’s life is in danger,
including from threat of suicide. It has taken 20 years and at least six successive governments for a government to make the
first move to provide for the required legislation.
However, what is proposed falls way short of dealing with,
what is in essence, an abortion crisis in Ireland.
It is recognised that we have one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world. As has been so cruelly demonstrated
in the death in October 2012 of Savita Halappanaver, Ireland does not allow for abortion even in the case where a woman is
carrying an unviable foetus and where inaction can lead to the death of the woman.
Every year thousands of women travel from
Ireland for abortions. Since 1980 150,000
women have done so. Cold statistics fail to tell the stories of each of these women, the varied reasons why they opted to
have an abortion, the enforced secrecy that attached to their decision, the difficulties encountered by many of the women
to get the money to travel, and the fears and anxieties related to seeking follow-up medical care. They have had to return
home, following their abortion, to an Ireland
whose punitive abortion laws fail to respect women’s rights to dignity and bodily integrity. It is an Ireland whose
laws are so draconian that it refuses abortion to young girls who became pregnant through rape or incest, to mothers who are
suffering from cancer and who have young children, to women for whom there is
no possibility of the foetus surviving, and to women for whom the birth of another child will have serious repercussions on
their health and wellbeing.
The heads of bill for the PLDP 2013 fails to provide for abortion in these
situations. It fails to reflect the concerns of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which considered the possibility
that such restrictive abortion laws may infringe the right to health of adolescent girls.
It is instructive that a Millward/Brown opinion
poll, conducted between May 5th – 16th for the Sunday Independent, shows that 72% say abortion
should be allowed in cases of rape, 78% where there is a threat to life other than suicide, and 69% where there is a long
term threat to the health of the woman. These figures illustrate once again that public opinion is well ahead of the government
on this important issue. This clear statement of public opinion at this time is important because it comes against a backdrop
of a fortnight of sustained media assault against the proposed legislation by certain politicians and medics and especially
by the Catholic Church both in Ireland
and indeed as far afield as Boston.
The Bill proposes a 14
year prison sentence for anyone performing an illegal abortion or any woman undergoing one. An abortion will still be illegal
unless there is a “real and substantial risk” to a woman’s life and we have learned, with tragic consequences,
the difficulties of establishing at what stage “real and substantial risk” occurs. Eminent medical doctors like
Boylan and Bonner have disagreed in relation to when intervention should have occurred in the case of Savita Halappanavar.
The prospect of a 14-year prison sentence will likely result in further tragic cases, where doctors will fear to intervene
on grounds of uncertainty.
Under the proposed bill will a young girl who became pregnant in such tragic circumstances
as rape or incest, or indeed her friend, who has helped her to access miscarriage-inducing products through the internet,
be guilty of an offence under Head 19, and “be liable on conviction or indictment
to a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years, or both”? Head 19 states that “It shall be an offence for a person to do any act with the intent to destroy unborn human life”.
the explanatory note in relation to Head 6 (2) namely: “Conferring these procedural
rights upon her does not deprive any other person of any right they may enjoy and any person who believes they may have a
right to take action will be free to exercise their right of access to the courts to challenge a decision which they believe
to be wrong” needs clarification. It certainly does not make clear who may challenge a decision as to whether a
woman may or may not have an abortion.
Even in the very limited situations in which termination may be permitted
under the bill unbelievable obstacles are put in the way. Head 4, which is concerned with risk of loss of life from self destruction,
involves 4 practitioners in the decision to go ahead with a termination. Head 4 states that three medical practitioners, including
one obstetrician/ gynaecologist shall jointly certify that there is ‘a real and substantial risk of loss of the pregnant
woman’s life’. In addition one of them shall consult with the woman’s GP where practicable. One has to question
the roll of an obstetrician/gynaecologist in determining the risk to life from self destruction. The fact that one of the
psychiatrists must be attached to the ‘institution where such a procedure is carried out’ surely presents a major
obstacle since very few obstetric units have psychiatrists attached.
While women have the right to travel outside
the jurisdiction to seek an abortion this is not a realistic option for many women, including women who are too ill, migrant
women who might be refused re-entry to the country, women who don’t have the money to travel. Less well-off women are
disproportionately affected by the lack of abortion services in so far as the time spent trying to get the money together
can force them into later-term abortions resulting in them having to undergo more complicated procedures.
It is high time that
as a nation, we addressed the reality of our situation. This is a reality in which thousands of women each year have to travel
abroad to be treated with the dignity and respect that they are denied in their own country; a reality in which some women
cannot exercise their right to travel for an abortion because of health, economic or other reasons; a reality in which children
who become pregnant through incest or rape cannot have the pregnancy terminated, a reality in which Savita Halappanavar died because the hospital refused to terminate her pregnancy even though she was carrying
an unviable foetus.
The Church’s excessive efforts to influence the outcome of the
proposed Bill going through the Dáil is questionable, to say the least. While in a democratic society all people have a right
to express their opinion and oppose proposed legislation, the stance taken by some Roman Catholic Church leaders in the lead
up to and since the publication of the Heads of Bill must be considered as political interference in matters of state and
in the democratic process. It is little wonder that it has taken governments 20 years to draw up a legislative framework to
reflect the Supreme Court’s judgement in the X case. Politicians have been elected to govern and to legislate in accordance
with the Constitution. Efforts by some Catholic Bishops, both from within the country and from outside, to exercise undue
influence, impedes the democratic process and it is in this context that the Workers Party has long called for the separation
of Church and State.
It is the position of the Workers’ Party that free and safe abortion should be available through the public
health service both in Northern Ireland
and the Republic. While recognising that any legislation on abortion in the Republic will be severely circumscribed by the
8th Amendment to the Constitution, the Workers’ Party firmly believes that the Constitution must be amended
to allow legislation to be enacted which will provide for free and safe abortion in the State.
In the meantime, we call
for reasoned debate in relation to the proposed legislation both in the Houses of the Oireachtas and through the media. We
ask that our legislators withstand any efforts to impede the legislative process and we call on the Roman Catholic Church,
and specifically the Bishops, to respect women’s right to dignity and bodily integrity and to allow our legislators
do the job they were elected by the people to do.