Hildegarde Naughton is one of many Irish politicians who has been "on a journey" over the issue of abortion and the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, and at the core of what has persuaded her to campaign for a Yes vote on May 25 is the idea of compassion.
“To be brutally honest, I’d never given the issue much thought - I’d never wanted to think about it - it’s such a difficult and personal issue,” she tells me as we sit for the interview on a Tuesday morning. “My thoughts were that I am Pro-Life and I consider myself Pro-Life, but listening to the public debate that had been building around this, I began to be challenged by the various issues. I saw that this is not something which is black and white.”
For the Fine Gael Galway West TD, her journey began when she was asked to become part of the Joint Oireachtas Committee’s on the Eighth Amendment last year. “It was a very difficult four months, for me, for everybody involved,” she says. “I went in with an open mind, I listened to the legal and medical experts, and to the personal stories of women who had gone through Fatal Foetal Abnormalities, these were wanted babies, and the heartbreaking stories of these women having to travel to England, sometimes with just their partner for support, to get a termination."
From this, she says she “wanted to do something for women" in those situations. "I began to see that women who were the victims of rape or incest, or who had suffered Fatal Foetal Abnormalities, needed a more compassionate response that the Eighth Amendment currently allows.”
Throughout the interview, a word which keeps coming up, and to which Dep Naughton keeps returning as a guiding principle, is compassion - compassion for women in crisis pregnancies, for women who are victims of sexual violence, for women who had been looking forward to giving birth only to find the foetus will not survive the pregnancy.
Indeed, this focus on woman is new in terms of the abortion debate in Ireland. The Eighth affects women deeply and personally, in a manner often difficult for men to fully comprehend. In the 1983 and 1992 referenda, the foetus was at the centre of debate. Women were an afterthought. Now women, and how the Eighth impacts them, have become the focus of discussion. “One of the reasons the focus has come on women is that people have seen, in practice, in reality, how the Eighth restrains us from helping women," said Dep Naughton. "We have seen the implications of the Eighth.”
A key factor in persuading Dep Naughton that the Eighth needs to be repealed is the issue of abortion pills, which, despite being illegal in Ireland, are easily obtainable online, with the result that they are not being used under any kind of medical supervision.
'There are certain cases where the life of the mother must take precedence'
“Five women a day - that’s something like 1,800 a year - it may be more, but that is according to one website which tracks the addresses - are buying these pills,” she says. “This is resulting in their being used without supervision, and that has serious health implications. Used under supervision, they are safe. If not properly used, they can lead to a perforated uterus.
“According to obstetricians, an increasing number of women are presenting for treatment as a result of unregulated use of abortion pills. At the same time, it is a criminal offence to have them, meaning there are also women who are afraid to come forward and admit they have used them. In these cases, these are women in crisis pregnancies who feel they have no choice but this, and are alone taking these in their bedroom.”
The availability of abortion pills means abortions are now taking place in Ireland. Digital technology has effectively bypassed the strictures of the Eighth Amendment. It also highlights that women in crisis pregnancies are apt to be viewed as criminals under current Irish law. This has, in turn, resulted in many politicians, like Dep Naughton, questioning the relevance of the Eighth and the absence of compassion the amendment has for the situations pregnant women can find themselves in.
If the Eighth is repealed on May 25, abortions would be permissible where there is a risk to the life, or of serious harm to the physical or mental health, of the pregnant woman. Terminations would be permitted up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. “Under medical supervision, it is safe to take abortion pills up to 12 weeks, in effect 10 weeks gestation. This is to allow victims of rape access to termination within a 12 week timeframe.”
The issue of rape, and whether a woman should be expected to carry to term a pregnancy which was the result of non-consentual sex, intrusively and violently inflicted on her, is a key issue in the debate on abortion. The presentation made by NUI Galway law lecturer, Tom O’Malley, to the joint Oireachtas committee, was also persuasive for Dep Naughton.
“He noted how it is impossible to legislate for rape," she says, "and pointed out the length of time it could take before a rape case comes to trial, the difficulties in proving a rape, and that the whole process is re-traumatising for the victim. Evidence also shows many women don’t report it immediately. It was at that point I became convinced the Eighth Amendment needed to be repealed if we are going to do anything for women who had been raped.”
While the Eighth purports to protect the life of the mother and the unborn equally, it has had the affect of relegating the woman’s life to secondary importance, as doctors, concerned about the legal consequences of the Eighth, feel obliged to do everything they can to protect the foetus first. As a result, the Eighth has directly and negatively impacted on women’s right to healthcare, and in some cases, on a woman’s right to life.
'We need to be more compassionate about this issue and allow women to make informed decisions and to do what is right for them in very difficult circumstances'
“A doctor has to wait until there is serious risk to the life of the woman before they act,” says Dep Naughton. That creates problems in determining what is ‘serious risk’ and when it starts. Is it at five per cent, 10 per cent, 48 per cent, 50 per cent? When does it start? At the joint Oireachtas committee, the current Master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr Rhona Mahony, and the former master, Dr Peter Boylan, noted how a woman could look very well right now, but within a few hours could deteriorate rapidly with haemorrhaging, where she has high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, to where she is at risk of dying. It all has serious implications for her long term health, because doctors can be afraid to act because of fear of the Eighth.
Dep Naughton says hearing personal stories from women who had endured Fatal Foetal Abnormalities also persuaded her the Eighth needed to be removed from the Constitution.
“I remember one woman telling us how, one night, she felt the movement in the womb grow weaker and weaker, and was convinced it was dying, then she discovered it was still alive. I remember her describing the trauma she endured, how alone she felt, how she could not get treated in her own country, but had to go abroad. I felt there was such lack of compassion for her needs. Some women chose to continue with a pregnancy in that instance, and feel it is very important they do that. It’s part of the healing and acceptance process, and they should be supported in that. For others, it’s far too traumatic to continue. We need to be more compassionate about this issue and allow women to make informed decisions and to do what is right for them in very difficult circumstances.
“The Eighth is not doing what it is meant to do,” she says. “We need to protect the unborn, but there are certain cases where the life of the mother must take precedence. There are crisis pregnancies and situations where women feel they have no other option but to terminate. We need a more compassionate response. We need to repeal the Eighth."
Dep Naughton is adamant the State can no longer turn a blind eye to abortion and just keep ‘exporting it’ to Britain and The Netherlands - especially now with the availability of abortion pills.
“Even if the Eighth is retained, abortions will continue to take place in unregulated and unsupervised circumstances, and with all the health implications this entails. We can’t ignore what is happening in Ireland. We need to deal with the reality of life and the different situations women find themselves in. I am still Pro-Life, I know some will disagree with me. I will be voting to repeal the Eighth. It’s about having compassion and acknowledging that life is not black and white and different women will make different decision based on their circumstances.”