Why I cannot support the Government’s Abortion Bill

Few pieces of legislation in the history of Dáil Éireann have been the subject of more polarising and divisive debate than the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013.

At the conclusion of the second stage of the Bill in the coming days, I will be voting against the proposed legislation – putting me at odds with Fine Gael and likely to lose the parliamentary party whip.

I am under no illusion that the stance I have adopted concerning this legislation is also at odds with the majority of public opinion. It is not popular, nor is it prudent from a political perspective.

I acknowledge that it is a decision for which I am likely to pay a heavy price. But if political isolation is the cost of doing what I believe to be right and in the best interests of the people I represent, then I will gladly pay it.

Too often in the past, our decisions have been guided only by what is popular, and political foresight has extended only as far as the next election. It is because of that mindset we find ourselves in the economic crisis from which we are striving to recover.

It is time for us now not only to look further but also in a different direction; not towards what is momentarily popular – but towards what is clearly right, regardless of the political consequences.

There are elements of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill I support. I welcome the clarity it offers to medical professionals, and the reassurance it offers to women, that every necessary treatment can be provided to protect the life of the mother, where it is subject to risk.

The life of the mother is at all times paramount. This is law, it is established practise, and I welcome the fact the Bill underpins that principle in legislation.

However, I believe that we – as legislators – have a duty to make evidence-based decisions in the best interests of the people we represent, with reference to the best possible information available to us at a given time.

That duty arises from a covenant between the people and their elected representative, which supersedes that between the elected representative and their political party.

If we were to frame legislation concerning the health of women in pregnancy based on the best advice from 30 years ago, we could be looking at providing for symphysiotomy in the legislation.

If we were to frame legislation concerning the health of women in pregnancy based on the best advice from 60 years ago, we could be looking at providing for the administration of thalidomide in the legislation.

But we are in the process of framing legislation for the protection of life during pregnancy in 2013, and we must be guided by the evidence available to us today rather than that which was available in 1992.

Earlier this year, psychiatrists and other medical professionals presented evidence to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, stating unequivocally that abortion is not an appropriate course of action in the treatment of a patient with suicidal ideation.

In fact, there is compelling evidence that the provision of abortion in such circumstances causes more mental health problems than it seeks to negate, such as major depression, suicidality, anxiety disorder, and substance use.

Much of this evidence has emerged in the intervening period since the premise that abortion is an appropriate treatment for suicidal ideation was conceived, not in centres for medical research, but in the Supreme Court in 1992.

Unfortunately, the testimony of those psychiatrists has been completely disregarded in the framing of this Bill, which is based on the flawed principle that abortion is an appropriate treatment for suicidal ideation.

This has no basis in medical evidence and we are now poised to perpetuate in legislation the absurd premise that the suicidality of one human being can be abated by the killing of another.

The failure by the Government to take cognisance of the available medical evidence is a testament to the fact that this Bill has been shaped by political considerations rather than expert testimony.

The legislation will also herald a fundamental shift in the culture of care in this country’s hospitals.

But what impact will this legislation have on the culture of care in Irish hospitals, if one day a doctor is striving to save the lives of women and babies, and the next, they are gowning up to perform a procedure that will result in the intentional death of an unborn child?

Also of concern is the absence of a gestational time limit in the proposed legislation, which raises the prospect of gravely troubling scenarios with devastating outcomes for both mother and child.

One such scenario is that of a pregnancy terminated under Section 9 at 23 or 24 weeks’ gestation, when the unborn child is on the very cusp of viability.

The child may survive the termination but, being prematurely induced at that stage exposes it to high risk of incurable conditions such as cerebral palsy or blindness, consigning him/her to a hopeless future of institutionalisation and disability.

I am also mindful that Fine Gael made a promise prior to the last election that it would uphold in government the duty of care to protect the life of the unborn.

Based on the assurances the party gave, I made a similar commitment on the doorsteps during that campaign, and that is a commitment I intend to keep.

One senior minister has said in recent times of promises that you don’t keep: “Isn’t that what you do at election time?”

It is not what I do at election time, and it is not what I propose to do here.

Given the seriousness of the matters before us, I still hope the views of those with deep concerns within Fine Gael can be accommodated within the parliamentary party by means of a free vote.

Regardless of whether there is a free vote or not, I accept that I stand in a minority in opposing the Bill and that it has sufficient support to ensure its passage through the Dáil.

However, reasoned concerns regarding the constitutionality of the Bill, which have been articulated in recent days, suggest that the absurd principle underpinning this legislation might well end up where it began 21 years ago – before the courts.

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