I suppose it’s a matter of perspective whether 1993 was either a long time ago or only yesterday.
I make the point because it is that recently, or that long ago, that I, as a young Minister for Health, made contraception available for general sale. And while it took us too long to get to that point we have certainly come a long way since then.
It was also the year I was charged with assessing the possibility of legislating for the Supreme Court decision in the X Case. The Supreme Court had decided that Miss X had an entitlement to an abortion by virtue of a threat to her life by suicide and that any decision to deny her a right to travel to avail of an abortion in the UK was unconstitutional. A referendum to reverse the Supreme Court decision in relation to the threat to life by suicide had failed the previous year and the public had reaffirmed the right to travel.
Ten years previously only the Labour Party had offered resistance to the eighth amendment proposal in the Dáil. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael remained steadfastly opposed to implementing the Supreme Court’s decision in statute.
Indeed the Oireachtas would make one further attempt to reverse the X Case decision in 2002, a proposal which once again Labour opposed. Again the people rejected that referendum by a narrow margin.
It wasn’t until 2013 that we were able to persuade Fine Gael to legislate for that Supreme Court decision and it was among the most difficult tasks of what were difficult times. A number of Fine Gael TD and a junior minister broke from the party on the issue.
So whatever happens don’t take for granted the opportunity to vote on this issue when the referendum comes up in May next.
It is, in my view, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to determine this issue for a new era. And it is not as if this issue hasn’t been adequately debated.
I think the way the issue has been discussed at first the Citizens’ Assembly and then the Oireachtas Committee to examine the recommendations has been an example of Irish politics at its best. Experts were listened to. Parliamentarians were engaged. Some changed their minds during the process. Each recognised the complexity of the issues being dealt with. We don’t always cover ourselves in glory but I think this was the process working at its best.
I think the way the issue has been discussed at first the Citizens’ Assembly and then the Oireachtas Committee to examine the recommendations has been an example of Irish politics at its best
I think it is fair to say that the outcome, a proposal to allow for abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, surprised many. Only the Labour Party of the main parties had contested the 2016 election with repeal as a major plant of our manifesto.
Nonetheless as the process went on I think a consensus was developing around the requirement to allow for terminations up to 12 weeks in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, in cases of rape or incest and to a lesser extent around the health of the woman.
And what happened finally, having listened to the evidence of practitioners, the Committee determined that the only way to deal with these four issues in a practical and realistic way, in a way that ensured appropriate health care being available to pregnant women, was to afford a general right, following medical consultation and enforced periods of consideration, for terminations up to 12 weeks.
It is a proposal that my party and I agree with, and I certainly found the committee deliberations helpful in crystallising my own thoughts on the issue.
There is no decision we will take in May to prevent the tragedy of abortions. But this certainly wasn’t the case in 1983 either. Irish women continued to avail of abortions albeit outside our jurisdiction. An old Irish solution to an Irish problem.
But by not recognising this as an issue, that we should own and deal with ourselves, we also lost the chance to take more proactive steps to reduce its incidence. I subscribe to the view that we should seek to make abortion safe in the first instance, and legal because unless they are they cannot be safe, but that we endeavour to make it rare too. To that end, I welcome the fact that the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, is determined to more contraception available more proactively.
But by not recognising this as an issue, that we should own and deal with ourselves, we also lost the chance to take more proactive steps to reduce its incidence.
As a society we have not always treated women well.
From the Magdalene laundries to Savita to the Miss Xs and Cs, we have not afforded women adequate rights, adequate safeguards or adequate protection. Let’s not make that mistake again.
What’s at stake here is a woman’s right to healthcare and to compassion in her own country. Pregnant women and their families should not face the indignity of illegally procuring abortion pills or travelling to other countries to avail of the necessary treatment.
At the time of their crisis, they deserve our compassion.
Please support this proposal in May. Don’t miss this opportunity to make a real change.