Speech by Micheál Martin on debate on Report of Committee on 8th Amendment, 18th Jan 2018
Published on: 18 January 2018
This week’s debate is the first step in a process which should lead to a referendum in a few months. There is as yet no clarity on important pieces of legal advice which can only be obtained from the government. This is nonetheless a very important debate and I am grateful to be able to make a contribution.
This is first and foremost an opportunity for each of us to explain how we are going to approach the fundamental decisions which we must take in the months ahead.
We must do this not just as legislators but also as citizens and members of a diverse society.
Abortion is not an issue where a unanimous opinion is possible. Radically opposed opinions on this issue are held with great passion, conviction and sincerity. A basic challenge for us is to do everything possible to enable a respectful debate – a debate where no one is afraid to add their voice and where we acknowledge the goodwill of people we disagree with.
The position of the Fianna Fáil party is that each member is entitled to vote in accordance with their own conscience. I want to thank my colleagues for the manner in which they have ensured that discussions between us have been constructive and have focused on answering the many substantive questions which have arisen.
I would also like to in particular acknowledge the work of the five Fianna Fáil members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee. Each has devoted considerable time not only to contributing to the Committee but also to talking with colleagues about the evidence provided to them.
I believe that the Committee carried out its work well and it was appropriate that it sought to concentrate on expert evidence. In the fact-finding stage of a debate this is the right thing to do rather than emphasize the advocacy which can too often prevent real debate later on.
The evidence heard by the Committee has helped clarify many issues and focused on the substance of what specific changes to policy we should make and the specific legislative changes required to implement them.
I thank the Committee for its work and for gathering evidence from such a wide-range of sources.
In deciding on my position I have read the Committee’s report, the transcripts of its hearings and written submissions. Most importantly I have sought to listen to the diverse contributions of women.
I am very grateful to the many people who have come to me to give their opinion and to colleagues for taking the time to discuss different points.
It is unfortunate that the government has not yet completed work which is necessary for us to be more specific on wordings and legislation.
However there is more than enough information available for each of us to be able to decide our attitude to the core recommendations of the Committee concerning the need for a constitutional referendum and what changes should be made following a referendum.
People elected to this House carry a responsibility to find a balance between beliefs which should be made law and those which should guide his or her personal actions alone. We must each question how far we are willing to go to impose our personal beliefs on others.
Over the years I have been on the record as being against a significant change in our abortion laws. I have done so from a belief that this was the most effective way of affirming the importance of the unborn. While I have supported different proposals to clarify the law and to address the threat to the life of the mother I have been broadly in favour of the law as enabled by the 8th Amendment.
However I believe we each have a duty to be willing to question our own views, to be open to different perspectives and to respond to new information.
On an issue as profoundly important as this we must all struggle with complex and discomforting medical and ethical issues. If our views change, if the facts become clearer, if we come to understand properly the impact of a policy on others then we must be willing to act accordingly.
No one can dispute the fact that thousands of Irishwomen have an abortion every year. For the significant majority this means a journey to Britain – often alone and always separated from the support of their medical professionals.
For many a crisis can become a deep and hidden trauma.
As the Master of the Rotunda informed the Committee, these journeys can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of the women involved.
As has already been said in earlier contributions, in an increasing number of cases abortions are happening here. The availability of pills which can cause an abortion in the first 70 days of a pregnancy is widespread and growing. This is not going to change.
So it is untrue to say that the issue before us is whether there will be abortion in Ireland or not.
The 8th Amendment does not mean that Ireland is a country without abortion.
Retaining the 8th Amendment will not make Ireland a country without abortion.
Nothing we say or do here could make Ireland a country without abortion.
It is also not the case that where legal abortion is provided there is one international approach to what is allowed. Countries differ significantly in terms of their legislation and also the prevalence of abortion.
Rates of abortion appear to link more to societal and cultural issues rather than to legal limits. In fact, research published in The Lancet medical journal indicates that some countries have seen a reduction in the number of abortions following liberalisation. The Oireachtas Committee considered similar evidence form the WHO. The likely cause of this was the fact that women became far more likely to engage with support services at a time of crisis.
Fundamentally there appears to be no sound basis for pointing to other countries and saying that Ireland will become like them by changing its laws. The war of claim and counter-claim on statistics serves no positive purpose in this debate.
What we know for sure is that the adoption of the 8th amendment was intended to remove this issue from the courts and the Oireachtas. It was claimed that it would give certainty.
The growing list of cases in our courts and in international courts has shown that this never happened.
Women known to the public only by a single letter of the alphabet have exposed the cruel inflexibility and unintended consequences of the 8th amendment.
I have always admired the work of our obstetrics professionals. I believe that their incredible dedication and high standards have helped dramatically improve care for women and children in our hospitals. Individually and as a profession they are absolutely focused on the care of those in their trust.
Their evidence to the Committee and elsewhere has had a deep impact on me.
There is of course no single viewpoint in this profession, but the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is clear in pointing to the impact of the current law. The Institute’s chairperson has said that the amendment has given rise to “significant difficulties for doctors practicing in Ireland and has caused grave harm to women, including death.
This is something we simply cannot ignore.
We all remember the sense of national shock at the death of Savita Hallappanavar six years ago. She was a 31 year old, healthy medical professional who experienced difficulties during a pregnancy. In the inquiry into her death the current law stood indicted for leading to a situation where her care was not as responsive or urgent as it should have been.
Other cases have revealed a situation where the law has gone to extreme lengths in the attempt to force women to go to full term with a pregnancy – and it has done so even where the public has been horrified by the implications of this.
If a family is told of a fatal abnormality during a pregnancy the law, as it stands and as it is required to be under the 8th amendment, says that they can do nothing.
Under threat of a criminal sentence they must carry the pregnancy to its term irrespective of the potentially devastating impact it will have. Without constitutional change it is not possible to address this.
This is also the case where a woman has been a victim of rape or incest. The law is blind to the permanent damage to the woman which might arise from her being forced to carry the pregnancy to term – again under the threat of committing a criminal offence.
There are women who choose freely to carry such pregnancies to term, and for them the law is not relevant. They have a right to be respected for their decision and to be given all the support they need.
However, for many others the law represents a cruel victimisation of women at perhaps the most traumatic moment of their lives. The law as it stands denies them the comfort of basic respect and humanity.
Of course many in these situations choose to travel to have an abortion overseas. When they do this they do it without the active support of their own doctors, enduring further trauma, incurring serious costs and risking further damage to their mental and physical health.
If we are sincere in our compassion for women and if we are sincere in respecting their choices then we must act.
Because the 8th Amendment has been shown to cause real damage to Irishwomen.
Because it has caused real harm to the quality of care available to pregnant women at critical moments.
Because it has not and cannot change the reality that abortion is a present and permanent part of Irish life.
Because it seeks to force women to carry a pregnancy to term when they have been the victim of a rape or incest or when they have received the diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality.
Because it requires that pregnant women and doctors are faced with criminal sanctions.
And because it prevents us from responding in a humane way in order to help women in the most traumatic situations.
Because of these reasons and following a long period of reflection and assessment of evidence before the Oireachtas Committee, I believe that we should remove the 8th amendment from Bunreacht na hÉireann and I will vote accordingly.
There remains a significant issue concerning whether we should simply remove the amendment or replace it.
Before deciding on this I would like to see the legal advice which the government says is being prepared. However, I feel it is likely that we may need to agree a replacement which gives certainty to the Oireachtas’ right to legislate. This need not be a complex provision, but it may be the only way to prevent significant unintended consequences in future court cases which are inevitable.
If a referendum is passed there will have to be legislation. I fully agree with the idea that we must set out in detail for the public the legislation which this Dáil will debate if the people decide to repeal the eighth amendment.
I support the logic and the basic approach proposed by the Committee but want to see proposals about how it might operate and to hear from the government about the legal advice which it has sought.
I agree that there is no legal, practical or humane way to prove rape or incest early on in a pregnancy. Equally it is clear that the reality of the abortion pill means we are no longer talking about a procedure which involves the broader medical system during the early stages of pregnancy.
We must have a system which actively encourages women to seek support from medical professionals as soon as possible.
As such, I support the idea of a time-based cut-off near the end of the first trimester.
Beyond this, I believe we should make provision for cases of fatal foetal abnormality and serious threats to the health of the mother.
The 2013 Act has proven yet again that we can trust our medical professionals and the women who seek their help to respect legal limitations. The claims that the 2013 would allow the introduction of UK-style laws have been fully disproven.
As such, I believe mechanisms similar to those in place for threats to the life of the mother can be applied in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and a serious threat to the health of the mother where she does not wish to go to term. These decisions must include multiple medical opinions and a high level of oversight.
I also believe that if the constitutional requirement to have criminal sanctions to enforce the 8th amendment is removed we should immediately review how we enforce remaining restrictions.
The decisions which we will take in the coming months are complex and emotional.
They challenge every one of us faces is to consider fundamental issues – to find a balance between our personal beliefs and the laws we require others to follow.
We are also obliged to consider the realities of Irish society today and the many profound concerns which people have with the operation of an amendment adopted over a third of a century ago.
I believe the case for change is justified by the full range of evidence available to us and I will vote for this change.