Government will examine penalties for illegal terminations, says White

Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 includes provision for unlimited fine and up to 14 years in prison

Alex White, the minister of State at the Department of Health,  says the Government will look at Section 19 of the proposed Bill. Photograph: Alan Betson

Alex White, the minister of State at the Department of Health, says the Government will look at Section 19 of the proposed Bill. Photograph: Alan Betson


Minister of State for Primary Care Alex White has said the Government will look again at the section of the planned abortion legislation dealing with penalties for illegal terminations.

Section 19 of the proposed Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 restates the general prohibition on abortion in the State under article 40.3.3 of the Constitution and includes an unlimited fine and up to 14 years of imprisonment.

“I take the point . . . in respect of head 19 and the fact that the restated offences are cast, at least in one view, in relatively broad terms, and that is something that we will look at and consider,” Mr White said.

The Minister addressed the Oireachtas health committee at the conclusion of its three days of hearings on the broad outline of the planned law last night. He said it was “regrettable” that the possibility of allowing for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality could not be considered under the legislation.

“I think it may be that this is an issue that will be revisited either by these Houses or by the people at some future time. If I may be allowed to express a view, that I would support such a course of action.”

However, Mr White said everything that had been raised in the course of the hearings would be addressed and considered by the Government as it prepared the full text of the Bill.

‘Greatest concern’
He acknowledged that the issue of legislating for abortion in the case of a pregnant woman expressing suicide ideation had caused the “greatest concern” at the hearings.

Referring to the evidence presented by the State’s chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan on Friday, Mr White said it could not be said a “real and substantial” risk to a woman’s life could never occur as a consequence of suicidal ideation.

“We simply can’t make such an assertion that it would never occur.”

He urged TDs and Senators to consider how “onerous” the test would be: “It’s worth pausing sometimes and reflecting on the nature of that test, which is a very onerous one.”

Fine Gael Senator Fidelma Healy Eames had earlier insisted legislators were not obliged to legislate for the X case, “as it’s not based on best medical practice”.

Responding to Ms Healy Eames, Mr White said there would be scope for addressing amendments relating to technical and drafting issues, “but a Bill there will be”. He said the Government would introduce the legislation to the Houses of the Oireachtas and it would “certainly be based in large part on what’s been before this committee in recent days”.

The end of July remained the target for completing the passage of the legislation.

Earlier, the committee heard evidence from medical ethics experts, including Dr Ruth Fletcher, senior lecturer in law and director of the centre for law, ethics and society at Keele University.

She said the proposed legislation did not do enough to meet the ethical obligation to value women’s lives, and referred to the “troubling mistrust” of women with suicidal ideation.

Dr Fletcher called for more consideration of the definition of the term “unborn” in the legislation. She said foetuses with lethal abnormalities were going to die after birth “and therefore do not have a future as persons”. Fine Gael Senator Paul Bradford objected to her terminology.

“There’s something very cold to say that people do not have a future as persons. I think that’s something which sounds a bit George Orwellian almost and frightening language,” he said.

“I think that’s why some of us are so fearful of this legislation. That’s the sort of scary thought place where it may take us if we’re not careful.”

Sunniva McDonagh SC said she wanted to make some “constructive criticisms” in relation to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013. She said the planned new law could result in what she described as “forum shopping” by the patient or doctors involved.