Coalition road map to advance abortion debate begins with Oireachtas hearings
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.
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.”