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

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 785 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Billy Timmins: Information on Billy Timmins Zoom on Billy Timmins] The chairman stated: "The only brief the Minister gave this group was to deal with the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights judgment and to advise the Government on how to give effect to existing constitutional provisions". In other words, the terms of reference tied the hands of the expert group to coming up with a process for implementing the Supreme Court decision which interpreted the 1983 constitutional amendment and referred to the substantial risk to the life of the mother, including suicide. That is regrettable.

  I am not sure if all the members of the Government are aware of this or if it was the Government's intention, but it is certainly the interpretation the chairman of the expert group put on the terms of reference. He also state, in his preface:

There are groups that think the X case was wrongly decided and there should be another referendum to row back on the right to an abortion, especially in the case of suicide. Two referendums tried to remove suicide as a ground and were defeated. There are still some advocates of another vote by the People.

The chairman does not pass judgment because that was not within his remit. It was my expectation, albeit due to misinterpretation by me, a lack of attention to detail or a misunderstanding of the terms of reference, that the expert group would give its views on the broad issue and how we would move forward on that. Despite the fact that we are having this debate, it is irrelevant if the Government adheres to the group's decision.

  Of course, the Government does not have to accept all the recommendations of the expert group. It can decide to act on only one recommendation. It cannot implement all of them. Many review groups are established and governments often choose, for one reason or another, to ignore their recommendations.

  I acknowledge that this is a difficult decision for Government. There is no easy way out. It is, nevertheless, important that we analyse it. When I say do not rush the cynics will say we have had 20 years to think about this. We have not debated this issue in the Dáil in ten years, however. It has not been discussed. At the time of the bank guarantee, there was a huge momentum towards guaranteeing the banks. Very few people questioned it. I accept that the Labour Party did not support the guarantee but it supported the nationalisation of banks, which was the same thing. I am sure you agree with me on that, Acting Chairman. Deputy Kieran O'Donnell questioned certain aspects of the guarantee but the momentum was to support it. There was a herd mentality. We are all familiar with it. It is easy to roll over before that mentality.

  There is a large common ground of uncertainty on this issue. I am unsure about it. I do not have a monopoly of wisdom. I have a view, however, that the decision of the electorate in 1983 might not have been as the Supreme Court interpreted it. I was severely rebuked in an e-mail from a post-graduate law student for challenging the Supreme Court's interpretation of legislation. I was told it was not my role.

  There were two referendums, in 1992 and 2002. The chairman of the expert group mentioned that the issue of suicide was voted upon on those occasions. I am not a spokesperson for the church and many church figures have let society down. Nevertheless, I remember Cardinal Connell and a number of bishops supporting a "No" vote in 1992. I do not think they were advocating for suicide to be used as a ground for termination or to intervene in a pregnancy.

  I am uncertain of a few things. I am uncertain where the Irish people stand on the issue of suicide. I am conscious of the opinion polls carried out over the weekend. I am also conscious of the inaccuracy of opinion polls on social issues. We need look back no further than the children referendum campaign, when opinion polls predicted an 8:2 vote in favour of the amendments. Despite the fact that there was a very limited "No" campaign, the result of the referendum was a much closer 55% for the amendments and 45% against.

  I do not take my lead from opinion polls on social issues. I do not even take my lead from the majority of people. I take my lead from what is the right thing to do. Trying to establish that is very difficult. We could have a referendum on the suicide issue tomorrow and if it were defeated people would still want it included as a ground. Many people might vote against it because they want to go a step further.   

  Irrespective of what the Government decides to do, I am of the view that the two extreme ends of this bell curve will not be satisfied. If legislation is brought forward with very tight controls on the suicide issue it may be challenged in the Supreme Court and overturned, and we may well have to have a referendum anyway. That is a danger and I do not know how it would go.

  Dr. Alex Bourne was the gynaecologist who, in 1938, used the danger to the mental health of the mother as a defence for carrying out a termination. Many years later he changed his view. Ms Norma McCorvey, for whom the pseudonym Jane Roe was used in the case of Roe v. Wade in the United States Supreme Court in 1973, later changed her position. In reading the following I am conscious of the danger of scaremongering. I remember at the time of the mobile telephone masts it was put to us that one would not want to be walking behind coffins going down the road. It is, however, important to read this because it shows the complexity of the issue. I do not want to say, in a number of years, that I felt it was not right but I let it go through because that was how the flow was going, that I did not stand up and express my view, that I did not take a stand and that I should have done so because what I did was wrong. This is a concern for me and for many others like me. It is important to acknowledge that.    

  This is, to the best of my knowledge, a correct statement by Ms Norma McCorvey. If others want to verify or refute it that is fair enough:

It was my pseudonym, Jane Roe, which had been used to create the "right" to abortion out of legal thin air. But Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee never told me that what I was signing would allow women to come up to me 15, 20 years later and say, "Thank you for allowing me to have my five or six abortions. Without you, it would not have been possible". Sarah never mentioned women using abortions as a form of birth control. We talked about truly desperate and needy women, not women already wearing maternity clothes.

I do not want to sensationalise this issue, but it is important to realise that Ms McCorvey sought a judicial review to overturn the decision in her own case some time in the mid-1990s. She failed in her attempt to do so.

  People on all sides of the argument have concerns. I recognise the bona fides and difficulties of everyone involved in the debate and for women, many of whom claim men do not have a right to talk on this issue because we have not experienced birth and the difficulties associated with it.

  I am also concerned that we lack medical and clinical statistics on the issue of suicide. How many pregnant women commit suicide as a result of their pregnancy? How many go on to have terminations and commit suicide afterwards? Is that statistical information available? It would be important for the Minister for Health or the Minister for Justice and Equality to come to the House before the end of the debate and outline those details.

  I thank the Acting Chairman for allowing me to speak. I acknowledge the difficulties this issue presents for people. It is important that we do what we believe is right and in the common good.

Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath I too am pleased to be able to speak on this very difficult and challenging issue for our society.

  When the expert group was set up I commented that expert groups are usually made up of civil servants and the professions concerned, and rightly so. I do not question the inclusion of any of the eminent professors or members of the group. However, I asked at the time if any lay people had been asked to serve on the group. On a group of such a size surely there is room for one or two lay people, especially a mother. Some of the members of the group may be mothers, but was there an ordinary home-maker or ordinary person among them? We can sometimes forget that ordinary people are intelligent, progressive and au fait with matters.


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