Abortion debate progresses as Bill moves closer to being passed

TDs approve five legal amendments as others rejected during Oireachtas discussion

Women outside the Dáil  protest against possible Catholic control of the National Maternity Hospital. Photograph: James Forde

Women outside the Dáil protest against possible Catholic control of the National Maternity Hospital. Photograph: James Forde

 

After nearly 14 hours of debate in the Dáil this week, the Oireachtas has edged closer to passing a landmark Bill which would provide for access to abortion services for the first time in the history of the State.

This is the last chance that TDs will get to make changes to the law, which will legalise abortion where there is a risk to the life or serious harm to the health of a woman, where there is a fatal foetal abnormality and where the pregnancy has not gone beyond 12 weeks.

The debate, which the Government had hoped would conclude this week, was slow, and at times bitter and personal, with charges of misogyny and – at one point – racism bouncing around the chamber.

For all the debate, only five amendments have passed, all proposed by the Government – changing the review period of the legislation to three years instead of five and an amendment dropping the requirement that the doctor who certifies a woman for an abortion must be the same one who performs it.

Among the proposed amendments which did not pass was one by former Sinn Féin TD Carol Nolan. She proposed that no public money would be used for providing terminations except where there is a risk to the mother’s life.

Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly said Ms Nolan’s contribution was “dripping with judgment, a kind of visceral hatred of these women”. Towards the end of the debate, Ms Nolan struggled to hold back tears as she talked about being “forced out” of Sinn Féin.

Criminalisation and abortion

The next day, proposing that the criminalisation of abortion be dropped from the Bill, Independent TD Clare Daly said the proposals were “the most important before us in our adjudication of this legislation”. Minister for Health Simon Harris countered that it was in the woman’s interest to leave the provisions in the Bill.

“Criminalising a person who does this is necessary from a policy perspective. Helping a pregnant woman to end her pregnancy outside of the provisions of the Bill is not in her best interests and may on occasion put her health or her life at risk,” Mr Harris said. No anti-abortion TD spoke on the proposals.

Later, Independent TD Mattie McGrath introduced a proposal which would prohibit abortion on the grounds of sex, race or disability

Peter Fitzpatrick, who left Fine Gael over his stance on abortion, said European countries with “similar liberal abortion regimes” have seen the number of people born with Down syndrome “dwindle to almost zero”.

“There is nothing in the Bill to in any way prohibit children who test positive for these conditions being aborted within the 12-week time limit,” he said.

Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers said that “this is at the top of the pile in terms of how insulting it is to women”.

A number of anti-abortion TDs said that tests could identify before the 12-week period whether the foetus had a disability or not.

The debate ended at 11.30pm with another row after Ms Nolan claimed that one woman who attended a maternity hospital was told she could not find out what sex her baby was.

Sex selection

“When she asked why, she was told that a high number of women who had asked the sex of their baby had not returned to the hospital. We can draw our own conclusions from this.”

Earlier Ruth Coppinger said some speakers who warned about sex-selective abortion were being racist, arousing anger among several speakers.

The issue of providing pain relief to an unborn foetus before an abortion also took up a large amount of time after this vote, an amendment which was proposed by Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae.

Mr Harris said he could not accept the change, stating that the proposed law could not regulate or dictate the practice of obstetrics.

Towards the end of the debate on Thursday, the Ceann Comhairle threatened to suspend proceedings as a row broke out over an amendment which would oblige a doctor to carry out an ultrasound before a termination, and offer to show the results to the woman.

Independent TD Michael Collins gave an example of a woman who changed her mind about having an abortion after seeing an ultrasound. Lisa Chambers provided a counter argument.

“Abortion regret is made up and it does not exist. It is not about protecting women but rather judging, embarrassing and making them feel bad in the hope that if they are shamed, they might continue with the pregnancy because it suits the deputies and their agenda.” The debate continues next week.

How the proposed abortion amendments fared

Former Sinn Féin TD Carol Nolan proposed that no public money would be used towards providing access to terminations except where there is a risk to the mother’s life. It was defeated by 90 votes to nine.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath introduced a proposal which would prohibit abortion on the grounds of sex, race or disability. The amendment was defeated by 71 votes to 21 with two abstentions.

The issue of providing pain relief to an unborn foetus before an abortion was proposed by Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae. Simon Harris warned that the proposed law could not regulate or dictate the practice of obstetrics. The motion was defeated by 61 votes to 22 with one abstention.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath proposed an amendment which requires that a doctor take “all appropriate and practical steps to preserve the life of an infant who is born alive as a result of the carrying-out, or attempted carrying-out, of a termination of pregnancy”. Under the proposed law, there would be no late-term abortions. If a foetus is viable, it will be delivered. The amendment was defeated by 59 votes to 25.

Abortion: The Facts

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