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

Monday, 17 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 787 No. 2

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Deputy Michael Conaghan: Information on Michael Conaghan Zoom on Michael Conaghan I well remember the 1983 referendum campaign. It was a bitter, vicious campaign. During the campaign I held a public meeting in my local electoral area. There were no more than ten people present, among them a future President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and Dr. Paddy Leahy, the general practitioner in Ballyfermot who was a fearless advocate of women's rights throughout the campaign. Also in attendance was a Jewish doctor from Inchicore and a few women. I wonder if I held that meeting now in the aftermath of the tragedy in Galway how many would attend. I believe the hall would be overflowing. Public opinion at that time was fixed firmly against the message we were trying to get across, the message that women's health in all its dimensions must be the overriding priority. Those of us who campaigned against the constitutional amendment were shunned by a large section of society. Names were read out from the pulpit by furious priests and bishops and doors were slammed in our faces, etc.

Since the early 1980s, the debate on legislating for abortion in certain circumstances has always been drawn straight to the extremes. As someone who favours the availability of abortion in limited circumstances, I still consider myself to be pro-life. Killing babies is wrong, let there be no doubt about that. Despite some of the more extreme rhetoric on the anti-abortion side that is not what this is about. This is about achieving a balance that gives due regard to the life, health and well-being of women. Difficult situations exist and arise. Doctors are regularly faced with difficult decisions whereby the life of a mother is in danger. It happens and when it does we must choose on the side of a woman's life. Doctors must be confident that they can make the right decision in the interests of women's health within a clear legal framework free from the spectre of 150 year-old legislation that would have them treated as murderers.

At the heart of the dilemma is the failure of the Constitution and the law to adequately express how to tackle these situations. The legal position as it stands limits the choices a doctor has and, as a result, endangers women. This has been dramatically demonstrated by the case of Savita Halappanavar. Although this tragic case is still under investigation it seems to me that it was preventable; it should not have happened. An option that could have saved her life was closed off to the doctors because of the legal uncertainty.

To atone for this tragedy we must act in the Dáil and introduce the necessary and long overdue legislation. We need to make political decisions to minimise the risk. For too long we have failed to remove the obstacles to protect women's safety during pregnancy and childbirth, the most vulnerable point in their lives. There have been other tragedies many of which have never reached the pages of the national newspapers because women's health has never been properly guaranteed. Therefore, we must act to remove the risk, the burden and the dread and we must act now.

Tragedies such as the recent one in Galway manifest themselves in various forms and at various times. We cannot go back to the days of women being afraid to go to hospital for fear of their lives and instead being driven down the backstreets and into dark basements for illegal, unsafe abortions. The story of nurse Mamie Cadden, who performed abortions in Dublin in secret in the face of the law and who was sentenced to death in 1956, is an example of the desperate choices women were forced to make. Nor can we continue to rely on an English solution to an Irish problem. Abortion is available to Irish women, at least those who can afford it, in England. A total of 4,000 young Irish women avail of this every year. This is not acceptable. These women are forced to travel, often alone, without any support and, on their return, they feel they must hide their shameful secret. They endure an emotional ordeal the likes of which I can only imagine, without access to the psychiatric support etc. they need. Any framework that forces women into this position is wrong. If a women finds herself in a position where she believes she has no option but to terminate her pregnancy, she must have access to support and not be cast out on her own.

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