No new restrictions on abortion should be in Constitution – Harris
Minister ‘grappling’ with legislation and says Constitution not place to address abortion
Minister Simon Harris said he had heard very difficult and upsetting cases and met people “who have felt this country has been a very lonely place that has left them feeling very isolated” in difficult circumstances. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Eighth Amendment is not working in this country and should be repealed, Minister for Health Simon Harris has said.
Referring to Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, which put the life of a woman on equal footing with the life of the foetus she is carrying, the Minister said it was his personal view that no new restrictions on abortion should be enshrined in the Constitution.
“I don’t believe the Constitution is the best place to address this issue,” he said.
He said when the Eighth Amendment was enshrined in the Constitution it had unintended consequences.
“I don’t think it in any way has worked for women, has worked for infants, and … it has limited our ability to actually make laws to look after women, their health and infants as well,” he said.
The Minister said he was currently “grappling” with the issue of legislation. People of his generation and a generation older never had an opportunity to have a say, he said. He had heard very difficult and upsetting cases and met people “who have felt this country has been a very lonely place that has left them feeling very isolated” in difficult circumstances.
“I have met women and their partners overjoyed to find out they are pregnant, only to be hit with a terrible tragedy . . . when they find out their expected child has fatal foetal abnormality; I want to see this addressed,” he said.
Referring to an appearance before the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment by Dr Peter Boylan, former master of the National Maternity Hospital, Mr Harris said he was “somewhat intrigued as an observer of the committee” why medical experts were being asked about “ethical or moral views”.
“I attach a greater degree of weight to any medical advice given at an Oireachtas committee, particularly when I’m not a clinician and most of my colleagues in the Oireachtas aren’t either,” he said.
He also said he believed if the Irish people made a decision to make a health service available, it should be available in the public health service.
“Hospitals in this country are funded to operate under the law of the land and to deliver our public health services,” he said.
Mr Harris welcomed the “degree of clarity” provided by the committee on Wednesday when it agreed the Eighth Amendment should not be retained in full. He also said the Oireachtas and the committee would very shortly find “it’s gone as far as it can with this matter and it will ultimately be a matter for the Irish people”.
The Minister was speaking in Dublin on Thursday at the launch of the implementation plan for the National Maternity Strategy.
The strategy, launched in 2016, centres on providing nationally consistent, high quality and women-centred maternity care. It plans to replace the current model of obstetrician-led services with midwife-led care for women with low-risk pregnancies, and obstetrician care for women with medium and high-risk pregnancies.
Services will be organised in maternity networks, in the same way that centres of excellence and networks were established under the cancer strategy. The changes will be overseen by the National Women and Infants Health Programme Office, which began its work in March this year.
The implementation plan sets out a 10-year time line for the strategy, and includes 230 actions. Detailed costing to implement the first year of the plan was not available on Thursday, and projected staff numbers were also not available. They will be included later in the year when the health service plan is published.
Killian McGrane, programme director, said over the 10-year life cycle of the plan “a very significant number” of additional staff will be required, including 100 additional obstetricians.