Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said the Oireachtas health committee is the appropriate place to examine recommendations on services for the termination of pregnancy, as he defended his motion to defer a People Before Profit bill to expand access to abortions.
The debate comes on the fifth anniversary of the referendum in which Ireland voted to liberalise its laws on terminations of pregnancy in a landmark referendum in 2018.
People Before Profit had tabled a bill to amend Ireland’s abortion legislation to provide for abortion on request prior to foetal viability, to abolish the three-day waiting period for abortion on request, and to allow for abortion on grounds of fatal foetal abnormality that are likely to lead to the death of the foetus either before or within a year of birth.
It also called for the provision of services to allow for abortion where there is a risk to the life, or of serious harm to the health, of the pregnant woman and to decriminalise the provision of abortion.
It followed recommendations made by an independent review of the current legal framework, which was undertaken by barrister Marie O’Shea.
That review recommended a series of operational and legislative changes to the system, including the removal of a mandatory three-day waiting period between a woman’s initial medical consultation and her being given access to abortion treatment or medication.
The framework introduced after the referendum provides for unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks in term.
After that point terminations are allowed in certain circumstances, such as in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and when there is a risk to the wellbeing of the expectant mother.
People did not vote to repeal the eighth in isolation
The review recommended several changes to the system for determining when abortions can be granted post 12 weeks and also recommended that threat of criminal sanction is removed for medics found to have acted outside the provisions of the abortion legislation.
Mr Donnelly said it was important to give the recommendations of the report “due consideration and due deliberation” at the Joint Committee on Health.
“It’s important to allow the Joint Committee on Health the time and the space its members need to complete their deliberations before proceeding with any potential legislative change.”
He said he “campaigned hard” prior to the referendum but added that those who voted in support did so in the context of the proposed legislation at the time.
“People did not vote to repeal the eighth in isolation, they voted to repeal the eighth [amendment] in a very clear context of the heads of the bill.
“And I know there are people I spoke to who were voting to repeal the eighth with a very clear understanding of some of the measures in place that we’re discussing, and I think it’s important as we debate this – as we must – that we keep both of those things in mind, the democratic imperative which we need to respect as well as the absolute need to provide the best possible services to women.”
Debating the matter in the Dáil, People Before Profit TD Brid Smith said: “The vast majority of people voted to take us out of the dark ages in relation to abortion rights for women and girls in this country.”
She said the minister was doing a “huge disservice” to the people who need abortion care in Ireland.
“People voted yes to give women a choice and to stop them traveling out of this country to access basic abortion healthcare.”
She said the report was evidence that there are certain obstacles within the legislation that are forcing women to travel and are not delivering the full abortion care service in the country.
Mr Donnelly said while his amendment would delay the People Before Profit bill by 12 months, it did not necessarily mean that Government would wait a year to legislate changes to abortion laws.
Cabinet considered the independent report on April 25th and agreed that the HSE would set up an implementation group to progress the operational recommendations.
However, it decided that the legislative recommendations be considered by the Oireachtas Committee on Health.
The Government position was that while there is some overlap, the People Before Profit Bill “goes further” than the recommendations of the report.
While politicians debated the matter in the Dáil, activists gathered outside the entrance to Leinster House for a pro-choice rally in support of People Before Profit’s Bill.
Among the speakers were National Women’s Council director Orla O’Connor and Women’s Aid chair Ailbhe Smyth/.
The Dáil will vote on the matter on Wednesday.