Proposing legal changes will take time, says Harney


LEGISLATION:THE LEGISLATIVE changes on abortion required by the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights are unlikely to happen in the lifetime of the present Government, Minister for Health Mary Harney has indicated.

Ms Harney said the Government recognised the judgment was binding on Ireland and would bring forward proposals “in time”. However, it would first have to reflect and take advice.

While the Government would not “long finger” the matter, she warned it would take time to draw up proposals because of the complexity of the issue.

“It will take time,” she told RTÉ Radio’s News at One yesterday. “I can’t see proposals in a matter of weeks and given the complexity and sensitivity we will have to reflect.”

A general election is likely to take place in February or March, making it highly unlikely that legislation could be agreed and passed by the Oireachtas before it is dissolved.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the ruling raised difficult issues that needed to be carefully considered.

Speaking in Brussels, he said it was much too early to make any decision on whether legislation would be required in light of the court’s decision.

“I have not even read the judgment. I have not been advised on it. It’s just happened since I arrived here [in Brussels],” he said.

“It is important to point out as a general principle that the [Irish law] has not been held to be in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights. But clearly there has been a decision in respect of one of the cases that was brought.”

He continued that the case raised difficult issues as well as “difficult times” for the people concerned. “I don’t think we can jump to any quick conclusion. Clearly it’s an issue for everyone to consider what the legal implications are,” he said.

“My initial reaction is that it raises an issue. We now need to consider this very carefully,” said Mr Cowen.

Ms Harney appeared to rule out the need for another constitutional referendum on abortion but said she had yet to receive legal advice. “We have constitutional provisions and we need to give legal effect to them. We need procedures which are clear in relation to the circumstances where a woman can get a termination.”

She said the court had found that there was no conflict between the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. It was very reassuring that our constitutional position was protected. Defending her failure as Minster to legislate for the circumstances in which women could obtain terminations, Ms Harney said modest changes had been proposed in legislation published during the 2002 referendum campaign but this had been defeated.

It was clear there wasn’t public consensus or support on the issue and there was no appetite to return to the subject, the Minister said.

She likened the complexity of the issues involved to those surrounding assisted human reproduction, where the Government has been trying for some time to produce draft legislation.

Asked whether a risk of suicide should be grounds for termination, Ms Harney said Medical Council guidelines would have to be taken on board and sufficient public support gathered for a reasonable response.

Labour’s health spokeswoman Jan O’Sullivan said there was an obligation on all parties to face up to the court ruling and introduce legislation to provide for termination of pregnancies in the very limited circumstances specified in the judgment.

Legislation could be introduced to give effect to the ruling without the need for further constitutional referendums, she said. Ms O’Sullivan described the decision as an embarrassment for Ireland and said the issue could no longer be dodged.

Sinn Féin said the ruling vindicated the party’s call for legislation to deal with the X case.