Changes to abortion law needed as ‘electorate could not have foreseen difficulties’ - review chair

Barrister Marie O’Shea to say recommendations for change are not the ‘start of a creep’ towards more progressive regime

Recommendations for widespread changes to Ireland’s abortion laws are not “the start of [a] creep towards a more progressive” regime, the chairwoman of an independent review of the system will tell politicians on Wednesday.

Barrister Marie O’Shea was appointed by the Government to carry out a review of the effectiveness of the State’s abortion legislation three years into its operation, an exercise required by law. She submitted her final report, which called for widespread changes, last month.

Ms O’Shea will on Wednesday tell the Oireachtas health committee that “courage and leadership” are needed from the Coalition on the subject. The call comes after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would be “reluctant and uncomfortable” to make significant changes to the current regime. Other Fine Gael Ministers are understood to have similar concerns.

“I have heard senior members of Government and others voice concerns about changes to the legislation, fearing that they would be perceived as being tantamount to a breach of promise with the electorate,” Ms O’Shea will say in her opening statement to the committee.


“I have heard them express their reluctance to amend the Act in accordance with the recommendations contained in the report. At first sight, this is an understandable response.

“The draft framework of the legislation was presented to the people of Ireland prior to the referendum in May 2018, to provide clarity as to how termination of pregnancy services would be regulated.

“I think it is reasonable to say that among the 66.4 per cent of those who voted in favour of repeal of the Eighth Amendment were people who would have been influenced by the scope of the proposed regulations. They may hold genuine fear that the recommendations contained in the report represent the start of [a] creep towards a more progressive termination of pregnancy regime.”

However, the barrister will say “that is not the purpose of the recommendations” and she believes the “electorate could not have foreseen the difficulties that would arise” in bringing the Act into operation.

“The legislature included a provision to review the operation of the Act after three years. The inclusion of this provision reflects good practice in the modern-day design and roll-out of new health services, which are evidence-based, piloted and adapted to ensure that they are capable of achieving their objectives and of being implemented, before being fully rolled out,” she adds.

Ms O’Shea is to say that she hopes to see actual legislative changes on foot of the review, which will “require strong leadership and courage from the Government”.

The review recommended sweeping changes to the existing law including the decriminalisation of doctors, the removal of the mandatory three-day waiting period to access termination medication, and the introduction of a statutory obligation on healthcare workers to refrain from providing misleading information.

On conscientious objection, she will tell the committee that the law does not properly address the balance between the right to conscientiously object and the right to receive healthcare, “specifically to enable employers to make the requisite inquiries in the recruitment process to identify candidates who would be willing to perform abortion services”.

“The right to exercise conscientious objection by consultants has been attributed by senior managers at the HSE as a major reason why hospitals do not provide full services. The members of senior management at a non-providing unit with whom I met also attributed the lack of service provision to its consultants holding a conscientious objection,” she will say.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times