Dáil votes down proposal to fully decriminalise abortion

Criminalisation is necessary to protect women from forced abortions, says Minister

Minister for Health Simon Harris said he felt obliged to pass similar legislation to what was presented to the people before the referendum, and those provisions contained the penalties and criminal sanctions. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Minister for Health Simon Harris said he felt obliged to pass similar legislation to what was presented to the people before the referendum, and those provisions contained the penalties and criminal sanctions. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

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Attempts to fully decriminalise abortion as part of new legislation have failed following a debate in the Dáil.

A number of TDs called on Minister for Health Simon Harris to support amendments to the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill which would see doctors protected from criminalisation where they act in good faith, and which would drop the current 14 year jail term.

Independent TD Clare Daly said the move to decriminalise abortion was one of the most important of the 65 amendments.

“We are here at an important juncture and if we pass this legislation but maintain a criminal sanction in it, I think we are failing.

“We need to move away from associating abortion with a 14 year jail term.”

She said that failing to remove criminal sanctions would leave a “chill factor” for doctors and could leave healthcare services open to “malicious reporting”.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said that healthcare professionals were fearful of prosecution.

“Doctors seeking to ensure the health and welfare of women in pregnancy situations are now going to be labouring under an anxiety and fear that if they do certain things they may be guilty of a criminal offense and subjected to a 14 year sentence. That to my mind is patently unacceptable.”

Mr Harris said he felt obliged to pass similar legislation to what was presented to the people before the referendum, and those provisions contained the penalties and criminal sanctions.

“I did say after the referendum to Repeal the Eighth that I did feel a responsibility to stick to what was in the general scheme, and these provisions were in the general scheme,” he said.

He said Ireland was not alone in this matter, and in other countries the area was covered in law with penal codes.

Criminalisation ‘necessary’

The Minister said that criminalisation was necessary from a policy perspective and that to remove it may put the life or health of a woman at risk. He pointed out that under the Bill the woman herself would never face criminal sanction.

He said that the provisions in the Bill would protect women who were forced into seeking an abortion, or where there was a dominant personality or sexual abuse.

Fianna Fáil TD Billy Kelleher said that he was concerned about the issue and wanted it to be kept under review.

He agreed with Mr Harris, however, that the Government should not deviate from the proposed law which was presented before the referendum.

“You could have a vulnerable girl whose friend helps or assists with a tablet and it could go horribly wrong. That is not good for the health of the girl.”

He said there were fears that if she presented to a medical professional, her friend could be prosecuted or criminalised.

“When we look at this, we have to take it from the practicalities of what could happen. There has to be some system in place. While I say in one breath ‘I don’t like deviation’, I do think we have to keep an eye on this to ensure that we are not discouraging people from presenting to medical professionals if things do go wrong,” said Mr Kelleher.

Mr Harris agreed that the issue needed to be “carefully monitored” and that it might form part of the three year review which would be built into the legislation.

No anti-abortion TD spoke in relation to those amendments.

Another amendment calling for public funds not to be used in abortion services was defeated in the Dáil.

The motion put forward by former Sinn Féin TD Carol Nolan was defeated by 90 votes to nine.

A debate on the proposed three day waiting period was also held. This is the period that a woman would have to wait before she could access abortion medication. Independent TD Mick Wallace said he wanted to drop the three day wait in cases where it would lead to a woman not being able to access a legal abortion under 12 weeks.

Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger said the three day wait would impact on ordinary women who would have to take a number of days off work to visit a GP.

Fianna Fáil TD Mary Butler said that it was important that the Government keep the three day waiting period in the legislation as this was what was presented to the people of Ireland before the referendum.

“Any proposal to remove this waiting period would mean that the Government deliberately misled the public as to the safeguards that would be in place. Many people cast their vote on the guarantees made by government at the time. They have to be held to their words,” she said.

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