Some 13 years after this debate began I am disappointed, to put it mildly, to find the same air of unreality about the debate today. We do not seem to have learned anything. Many people want to keep the blindfold over their eyes, ignore what is going on and pretend in legislation that things are not happening which we know perfectly well are happening.
I am unhappy about this Bill, particularly as I, and others, have concluded that this Bill represents the best that can be achieved politically in the present atmosphere in what passes for analysis of a social evil that we would all like to see reduced. If this represents the best that our political establishment can produce — I do not criticise the Minister, far from it — that 166 elected Deputies can give as a response to this problem, I feel downright discouraged by the closed-mindedness, obduracy and determination to look the other way of a substantial proportion of those 166 Deputies. Doublethink is still alive and well and living in Dáil Éireann.
We are letting down badly those who elect us and, in doing so, we are pandering to this nonsense that SPUC and PLAC peddled in 1982. They told us then that they did not like abortion being regulated by an 1861 Act of Parliament. They wanted an amendment to the Constitution so that politicians could not mess about with it. They got what they set out to get; they got the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, without which the verdict in the X case could not have been possible.
These self-appointed arbiters of what is and is not acceptable in constitutional terms, are nothing more than bungling political amateurs. They have created the problem they thought they would solve and in doing so, have handed back the problem, curiously enough, to politicians. We now have to deal with the results of yet another referendum held in 1992 and those same people who gave us the constitutional amendment that made possible the verdict in the X case will not now accept those results.
I listened carefully to the debate and participated in it — but I listen a lot more than I participate — and I am convinced that at heart the people who still oppose this Bill, those who are ringing up Deputies all over the country, do not accept the results of the 1992 referendum. They are making spurious allegations that information is the same as referral, for example. If one listens to them carefully for long enough — I listened to one of their prime exponents and apologists last night — it is easy to conclude that they do not accept the result of the travel referendum of 1992.
They would happily go back to a situation where they would put people at the ports and airports to ask women why they were going abroad and if they thought there was the slightest chance they were going to have an abortion they would stop them. One does not have to listen to them for very long. Groups outside this House, Youth Defence and others, are actually saying they do not accept the result of that referendum. We hear them every day; they are now trying to tell us that when they voted in 1992 they were under some misapprehension. When they voted in 1992 they knew exactly what they were voting for but it does not suit them to accept it today.
I am damned if I will contemplate without protesting a situation where we will have this pressure coming again and again; where every few years we have another campaign to have another change in our Constitution so that these people can bungle it again and keep the same problem returning. They do not want to accept the democratic process. If that is their game let them say it; if they do not want to accept the democratic result of a democratically held referendum let them say they do not want to accept the democratic process. However, let them not send out their emissaries to try to accuse people who think like me of being in some way a recreation of Hitler's holocaust or Nazis simply because we accept the results of a democratic referendum, and we process legislation through this House as required by the results of that democratic referendum.
They do not know where they are starting from and Deputy Doherty has given us a particularly good example of that. If this Bill is not passed it would be possible to give information to women about abortion services available in other countries with no other qualification. That is possible today; it is what the 1992 information referendum gave us. It is now constitutionally sound to give such information. This Bill regulates the conditions in which that information can be given, regulates the type of information that can be given and specifically provides that the information cannot be given without counselling being given at the same time.
If I were to accept Deputy Doherty's starting point I would have to say, if I shared his view, that this Bill represents a net improvement in the position; that the passage of this Bill would do more to meet his concerns than it will to meet the concerns of many who take a different view from him. I find that provision excessively intrusive; I do not like and would rather stay away from a situation where the State gets so involved in regulating what people do, say, think and discuss with each other. However, it is a matter of objective fact that this Bill makes new requirements and puts new restrictions on the provision of information that are not in place at present and will not be there unless and until this Bill is passed. At present the information can be given without any counselling.
I note the Minister is giving a substantial amount of money to counselling services. In case I am accused of exaggerating let me say that the provision for those counselling services up to this year was £70,000 per annum; the provision the Minister is now making is £200,000 per annum — he is trebling the amount and that is a substantial increase. The total amount may not be huge but it is worth noting that not only is this Bill regulating and shaping the information that can be given, but it is making more resources available to give the information.
Most of the women who go to England for abortions — let us not use circumlocutions — do so without getting any counselling whatsoever. This Bill, to the extent that it will have an effect on those situations, will at least make sure that more women than is the case today will receive some kind of counselling before they go.
We are told the evidence suggests that where counselling is given, particularly counselling of the kind contemplated in this Bill, the result is that some of the women counselled decide not to have an abortion. There is agreement all around that counselling seems to have that effect, so that the effect of this Bill would be to help reduce the number of women having abortions in England. That is an objective that all of us in this House and on both sides of this argument can share. I cannot see why people who share that view are spending time opposing this Bill. It is very difficult to explain why people who hold the views that Deputy Doherty does, for example, are opposed to it. If there was any logic in their thinking they would want this Bill passed as quickly as possible.
The position of the main Opposition party is a very curious one. They do not want to make a decision on this Bill until there is a final decision given in some court case. They seem to have some difficulty in understanding what is meant by the information provisions in this Bill. I do not know what their motivation is, but whatever the reason, they are trying to suggest that information is in some way the same as referral. I wonder why they are taking that view. They did not take that view in 1992. I will cite, as the Minister did the other day, a pamphlet issued in 1992 by the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat Government which seemed to put the whole thing fairly clearly. In referring to the conditions under which information could be given, it asked the question, "What conditions will be laid down by law?" The answer was as follows:
The Government has said that the legislation will permit a doctor or advice agency to give a pregnant woman information on abortion services available elsewhere, provided that counselling is also given on all of the alternative options open to her. It will not be permitted to promote abortion, or to encourage the woman to select it in preference to the other options or to provide an abortion referral service.
Anybody reading that will come immediately to the conclusion that the people who wrote it understood that there was a distinction between information and referral, otherwise that paragraph would make no sense whatever.
Deputy Doherty's party, or at least those of them who were in Government and in communication with Government in 1992, knew that there was a very clear difference between information and referral. They also assured the public — a copy of this pamphlet was delivered to every household — that information would be given on abortion services available elsewhere, provided that counselling was also given on all the alternative options open to the woman who sought the information. In other words, they said to the public in 1992 that they would make the kind of provision in law that is contained in this Bill, and that they would make those provisions in regard to information which they regarded at the time as being separate and distinct from referral, as we do today.
I do not know what can have happened in the meantime to make members of the Fianna Fáil Party change their minds or to blur that distinction between information and referral. I cannot think of anything that would have happened to do so, except that they are now in Opposition. I did not like to say that, but I am forced to say it today because the Leader of that party is reported to have said last night he does not believe that on any given issue, a party in Opposition should take the same position as it would if it were in Government. For people who are arguing against the propriety of giving information about abortion — because they think abortion is wrong, and I agree with them — to make that kind of statement and put politics and the exercise of politics on any important issue into the domain of that kind of situation ethics lacks any kind of credibility.
The facts are that in 1992 Fianna Fáil in Government saw a very clear distinction between information and referral. Fianna Fáil in Government said it would legislate so that information could be provided under the same kind of conditions as provided for in this Bill. In 1995 they seem to have changed their minds because they have changed sides in the House. I am not making that point to be politically nasty but because the issue we are discussing needs clarity. The last thing it needs is that kind of political foot shuffling.
We forget sometimes just what we are talking about. For many years, Irish women have chosen to have abortions elsewhere. There was a time when some of them chose to have abortions here. That day is gone; apparently it is no longer possible. There are women alive today because of that who might not otherwise be alive. They have chosen to have abortions elsewhere. We have to accept the fact that in the future some Irish women will come to the same conclusion for reasons which I cannot go into, nor can other Members of this House. As long as that is the case, we have a duty to make sure that if they have to choose that road, they at least do it in circumstances which minimise the damage to them, both physical and psychological, and which minimise the anguish they will suffer. I do not know about that on a personal basis — few Members in this House do. We can only imagine that anguish from the stories we hear.
Maybe not all women who have an abortion suffer this kind of anguish, although SPUC and PLAC tell us that it scars every women permanently. If that is the case and if we know, as we do, that it will continue to happen, surely we should be trying to ease the blow on those women, rather than criminalising and vilifying them in the way that we now seem to do and in the way that opponents of this Bill want to do.
I might not agree with the choice that a woman can make — it is not up to me. I cannot take the responsibility or even imagine what it is like to be inside somebody else's conscience, but at least I can decide not to say to any woman who has had an abortion that she is part of something like Hitler's holocaust or that she is a Nazi. The people in SPUC and PLAC and other groups should not say that to them either, nor should they countenance anybody who supports them saying that. I ask where our charity has gone.
So far in this debate the judgmental aspects of the issue have been in the background. I hope they stay there until this Bill is concluded. I read a report of one priest saying that he would refuse holy communion to people who had been involved in encouraging this. I read that one bishop talked about excommunication and I have taken ecclesiastical legal advice on this. I would not claim this advice is the highest available because I do not have a direct line to God as other people claim to have but according to the best advice I can find, neither the priest nor the bishop is entitled under canon law to say either of those things. If people want to discuss that issue with me by telephone, outside the gate or anywhere else, they can forget it because I am not bothered to discuss such issues with them.
I am disappointed that the provisions of this Bill realistically constitute the best response we can make to the 1992 information referendum result. I emphasise that I am not in any way criticising the Minister. He made a very shrewd, hard-headed political judgment and I commend him for it but this Bill shows once again that the Irish, and their legislators in particular, are sadly lacking in the human charity which should be shown to people who find themselves in the situations contemplated by it.