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 Header Item Hospital Services (Continued)
 Header Item Report of the Expert Group on the Judgment in the A, B and C v. Ireland Case: Statements

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 785 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy John McGuinness: Information on John McGuinness Zoom on John McGuinness] The Minister of State will fully understand why such a family can lose its faith in the health system and the HSE. Given the poor contact between the family and the HSE, rebuilding confidence in the system, the HSE and the Department requires that similar situations be dealt with in a more sympathetic way. I do not expect a reply now, but please reconsider the family's simple request.

Deputy Kathleen Lynch: Information on Kathleen Lynch Zoom on Kathleen Lynch I will be brief. We all understand the grief that the family must be going through. A healthy young man, a son, was lost. That this situation has been escalated to the national incident management team for the completion of a review is important. As Deputy McGuinness rightly stated and as we all accept, though, I cannot give a commitment now. However, I will bring the family's request to the Minister for Health. Understandably, the family has been deeply traumatised by these events. I will not walk out of the Chamber and leave this issue behind me - I will bring it with me and discuss it with the Minister.

Report of the Expert Group on the Judgment in the A, B and C v. Ireland Case: Statements

Minister for Health (Deputy James Reilly): Information on Dr. James Reilly Zoom on Dr. James Reilly I am pleased to have the opportunity to make this statement on the report of the expert group on the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in A, B and C v. Ireland.

  The reason for this debate - more than 20 hours have been set aside for statements to be taken in the Houses of the Oireachtas on this topic - is that the Government is committed to allowing all Members of the Houses the opportunity to make a statement on this issue. Time for this purpose has now also been provided in the Seanad, where a discussion will take place on Thursday afternoon. Following this discussion, the Government will make a decision before the Dáil goes into recess on the option to be pursued to implement the judgment in A, B and C v. Ireland. The public hearings to be held by the Joint Committee on Health and Children in the new year will give us a further opportunity to discuss the option for implementation that the Government will have chosen.

  We are conscious that this is a sensitive issue and most of us hold strong personal views on it. However, it is important to bear in mind that the Government has consistently stated its commitment to implement this judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.

  I must also reiterate that the Government is committed to addressing this issue within the confines of Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution and its interpretation by the Supreme Court in Attorney General v. X. As we all know, this case involved a 14 year old girl who became pregnant as a result of rape and was suicidal. The court deemed that, where it was established on the balance of probabilities that there was a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother and that such risk could only be averted by the termination of her pregnancy, such termination was lawful. This included where there was a clear and substantial risk to the life of the woman arising from a risk of suicide.

  Recent comments inside and outside of this House have addressed other unfortunate situations where pregnancy might arise cut of traumatic incidents such as rape or incest. At this juncture, these scenarios per se do not come within our constitutional and legal provisions and, therefore, were not and could not be addressed by the expert group or, indeed, by the Government through the implementation of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.

  Before I move on to discuss the background to the report and its merits and implications, I wish to put on record once again my gratitude to the expert group, in particular to the honourable Mr. Justice Seán Ryan, for its commitment and dedication to this work and for the invaluable contribution it has made in bringing clarity to this complex and sensitive issue. While it is true that a number of other bodies have previously addressed the issue of how to provide for the X case, the House would agree that the report of the expert group presents with consistent clarity and lucidity the many complex issues that need to be resolved in order to bring clarity to the provision of medical treatment to pregnant women whose lives are at risk.

  In December 2009, the European Court of Human Rights heard a case brought by three women in respect of the alleged breach of their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights in regard to abortion in Ireland. This is known as the A, B and C v. Ireland case. All of the applicants were women who unintentionally became pregnant and who travelled to the UK for abortions.

  The European Court of Human Rights accepted that Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, provided that it was lawful to terminate a pregnancy in Ireland if it was established as a matter of probability that there was a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by a termination of the pregnancy. This provision has not been altered by the judgment.

  The court found that there had been no violation of their rights under the convention in respect of the first and second applicants, Ms A and Ms B, and it dismissed their applications, and that there had been a violation of the right to private and family life contrary to Article 8 of the convention in the case of the third applicant, Ms C. The court held that there was no accessible and effective procedure to enable her to establish whether she qualified for a lawful termination of pregnancy in accordance with Irish law. The court ruled that "no criteria or procedures have been ... laid down in Irish law ... by which that risk is to be measured or determined, leading to uncertainty..." and held that further legal clarity was required.

  The establishment of the expert group and publication of its report fulfil an important commitment in the programme for Government. The expert group was established in January of this year and its terms of reference were as follows: to examine the A, B and C v. Ireland judgment; to elucidate the judgment's implications for the provision of health care services to pregnant women in Ireland; and to recommend a series of options on how to implement the judgment taking into account the constitutional, legal, medical and ethical considerations involved in the formulation of public policy in this area and the overriding need for speedy action.

  The group was composed of experts in the fields of obstetrics, psychiatry, general practice, law, professional regulation and public policy. It met nine times from January to October and submitted its report to me on 13 November.

  The expert group's report starts off by clearly indicating that, in order to stay true to its terms of reference, it would not recommend one particular solution for the implementation of the judgment in A, B and C v. Ireland, but would suggest a number of options. Sticking closely to its remit, it explicitly stated that it did not see it as its task to consider or recommend changes to abortion law in Ireland.

  The expert group report then gives a clear and concise overview of the current legal provisions governing termination of pregnancy in Ireland and meticulously outlines the historical background to the legal developments that have taken place on abortion in the past 30 years.


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