Why I was persuaded abortion up to 12 weeks should be allowed
Billy Kelleher: Evidence to Oireachtas committee highlighted difficulty of legislating for abortion in rape or incest cases
Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher: If as a society we are sincere about our compassion for women we need to be sincere in respecting and trusting the decisions women make. This is why I believe we should repeal the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Abortion is a very uncomfortable subject for anyone to discuss in great detail and there is no unanimous position on it.
Some say abortion is a human right; others believe it is an abomination and should never be allowed in any circumstances, even when the health of the mother is in danger, or when a fatal foetal abnormality is diagnosed or after a woman is raped or a victim of incest.
Abortion has divided families and political parties across the globe for many decades. The Eighth Amendment was inserted into the Constitution in 1983 when Ireland was a very different place.
I believed that terminations should be allowed for women who have been diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities. I thought it was cruel to ignore their plight
Corporal punishment was legal, access to contraception was very restricted and only legal since 1980, and homosexuality was illegal and not decriminalised for a further 10 years in 1993.
Abortion is a deeply personal issue and because the coverage is dominated by one extreme side or the other the “middle ground” is nearly afraid to ask questions or to give their actual opinion.
Whether we like it or not, abortion is already in Ireland but women are forced to go abroad for an abortion or seek an abortion pill, which is available over the internet.
I served as a member of the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment. The reality of abortion was driven home to us as we were consistently reminded how 10 Irish women go abroad every day for an abortion and at least three Irish women a day are ordering the abortion pill online, without any medical consultation or supervision. This has an enduring negative effect on women’s health and well-being.
Being on the committee listening to witnesses had a profound impact on me.
There were 21 Oireachtas members on the committee. Some were vehemently opposed to abortion under any circumstances and some believed there should be almost no restrictions whatsoever.
I believed that terminations should be allowed for women who have been diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities. I thought it was cruel to ignore their plight and send those women abroad. I also believed that no woman should be forced to go through with a pregnancy after being the victim of rape or incest.
Neither of these issues is easily legislated for in isolation. The legal process in Ireland offers those accused of rape or incest the right to defend themselves.
The woman would have to give evidence in court, to relive the trauma inflicted upon her and this could take up to two years.
As a husband and a father, I am very conscious that women need to be trusted and should be allowed to access medical advice if they decide to have an abortion
Tom O’Malley, a law lecturer from NUI Galway, told the committee of the difficulties in legislating for abortions in cases of rape. He outlined how terminations are allowed in rape and incest cases internationally, but how this is applied in law varies considerably.
In Portugal it applies in law “where there is serious evidence of a significant indication that pregnancy resulted from rape”. Likewise in Germany – but legal proof ie a criminal conviction or civil trial is not required.
Some countries require a report from the prosecutor who is required to provide a certificate to say that they are satisfied a rape took place.
Report the crime
Mr O’Malley said this would be the equivalent of a garda being asked to provide a certificate to confirm a rape had taken place. This is further complicated by the realities that many women who are a victim of rape do not report the crime.
The committee was also told the perpetrator may have to be named and that could jeopardise their constitutional right to a fair trial.
Mr O’Malley concluded: “It is almost a vicious circle in terms of whether the report has been made and at what point it was made . . . And the most difficult scenario would be where a report was not made in the immediate aftermath of the rape or another offence but where it was made several months down the road.”
This would make it make it nigh on impossible to have a termination after being raped or being a victim of incest. It is quite clear this would also further traumatise and stigmatise the pregnant woman.
Noeline Blackwell from the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre told the committee almost a fifth of their clients reported pregnancy as a result of rape by an intimate partner. She outlined how difficult it is for women who were victims of domestic violence to name their perpetrator.
Those women are often terrified to come forward and forcing them to report their rape to procure an abortion is cruel.
The evidence the committee heard was clear. Legislating for rape and incest would be impossible.
It was in this light I proposed the motion “on allowing termination of pregnancy lawful with no restriction as to reason up to a gestational limit of up to 12 week, through a GP-led service or delivered in a clinical context and determined by law and licensing practice in Ireland”.
Abortions were happening
This was passed by the majority of the committee. Many had entered the hearings opposed to abortion under any circumstances but it became clear abortions were happening in houses across the country and that we, as legislators, were turning a blind eye to this reality.
As a husband and a father, I am very conscious that women need to be trusted and should be allowed to access medical advice if they decide to have an abortion.
They should be able to receive medical care in a non-judgmental way and receive it in their own country.
If as a society we are sincere about our compassion for women we need to be sincere in respecting and trusting the decisions women make. This is why I believe we should repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Once the referendum Bill is passed by the Dáil it will be only nine weeks before the Irish people cast their vote on whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
The time for black and white responses and labelling is over. We need a mature, respectful, compassionate and humane debate and I will be asking people to vote Yes.