Coalition road map to advance abortion debate begins with Oireachtas hearings

Tue, Jan 8, 2013, 00:00

Today’s forum is the first foray into an argument set to dominate politics

This morning an Oireachtas committee will begin three days of hearings on the Government decision to legalise abortion in limited circumstances at some point next year.

In the course of the sittings, more than 40 witnesses and 20 groups will give evidence. They include medical and legal experts, the churches, civil society bodies, pro-choice and anti-abortion groups and, of course, politicians.

The evidence will range from complex and technical factual material to emotive advocacy from groups representing both sides of the debate. As such, it will be the first substantial foray into a debate that will dominate and divide Irish political discourse throughout 2013; as it did in 2002, in 1992 and in 1982/3.

The hearings are part of three-step process to arrive at a legislative solution to end the uncertainty over what is legally permissible with abortion.

Public consultation

The Oireachtas health committee, chaired by Fine Gael TD Jerry Buttimer, will draw up a report for Minister for Health James Reilly. He and his officials will then publish draft legislation. There will be further public consultation.

Once that ends, the Bill will be published and debated in the Dáil. Reilly has predicted – very optimistically – that the fresh legislation can be enacted before the summer recess. In reality, it may be the end of the year.

The hearings have been divided into four discrete sections.

Today, members will hear from medical experts, particularly in the areas of obstetrics, and psychiatry.

Tomorrow, they will hear from legal experts, particularly from those with knowledge of the Constitution and medico-legal areas.

On Thursday, the four main churches as well as the Islamic faith will make submissions. Most of the focus will obviously be on what the Catholic hierarchy has to say. Later that day groups advocating anti-abortion and pro-choice positions will appear.

Dr John Crown, a committee member from Seanad Éireann, doesn’t agree with the inclusion of churches or lobby groups. He said yesterday that the committee was being asked to assess the information in preparation for legislation and that information should be medical and technical. He said views for and against abortion should be for another (later) forum.

Essentially, the committee this week has been asked to become an information-gathering forum within a rigid format decided by the Government. In other words, it will not be asked to decide on anything but merely to summarise what has been said. “This is not a forum for us to make statements. We will have the opportunity to do this when legislation is drafted,” said committee member Senator Jillian van Turnhout.

Asked was it window dressing, Buttimer replied:“This is about us being the conduit for a consultation exercise . . . I want it to be a forum for reasoned debate. It’s important that we hold these meeting this week, and hear all sides of the debate.”

Talking shop

There are several procedural difficulties for Buttimer inherent in all this though. For one, he has to try and make the proceedings relevant and not just a talking shop, as several members have privately said it will be.

Nor is there any information on the scope or wording of the legislation and how it will interact with regulations.

“It would be different if there was an obligation on us to find a resolution. But as it is we are bringing in people whose views we already know,” said one TD. “It’s not going to make any difference.”

Crown puts it differently: “I am not an expert in these matters, but my guess is that impact of the committee on the shape of the Bill will be very limited if any.”

Live broadcasts

However, others such as Labour’s Ciara Conway; and Mary Mitchell O’Connor and Regina Doherty, both of Fine Gael, have said that live broadcasts and wide coverage will bring the issues before a wider public.

“For the public it’s really important to hear from the medical profession about their experiences,” says Conway.

Mitchell O’Connor disagrees with Crown about the churches being invited.

“As a committee member I want to hear the churches’ side of the argument. I want to hear all sides. I really want to know when doctors have to make a decision, what grounds they have. I want to know what arguments are being made by the pro- side and the anti- side. I also think the public want to know.”

Buttimer will also have his work cut out in ensuring it runs in a “calm and dignified manner”.

Any member of the 220-strong Oireachtas is entitled to ask questions and already many outside the committee have indicated they wish to participate. They include vocal pro-choice and anti-abortion representatives such as the Oireachtas Human Dignity Group, a network of anti-abortion parliamentarians, at least 30 strong.

Fianna Fáil Senator Jim Walsh criticised the rigid procedures for the hearings, saying it would be hard for non-committee members to speak.

He described the ramifications of legislation as intergenerational and said such a “monumental change” was being “forced through with unseemly haste”.

The committee met last night to agree the format and to ensure the hearing achieved its purpose.

Doherty, a devout Catholic with strong opinions, said personal views should be jettisoned as it was premature before the draft was published.

“I hope the hearings are not hijacked. Let’s be respectful of each other. The purpose of the hearings is to help draft legislation. Let’s get on with it,” she said.

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