Abortion has been an emotive, difficult and divisive issue in this country over many years. Here we are again faced with a constitutional referendum on an issue that almost nowhere else in the world is dealt with by way of the Constitution. We must surely ask what is so different about Irish women and their pregnancies that they must be dealt with by way of the Constitution.
The Government, the Taoiseach and the Ministers, in presenting this legislation, have told us that these proposals are reasonable and middle ground. Are they reasonable? Are they middle ground? The Ministers insist that the proposals represent a fair, reasonable and compassionate approach. They protest too much. The basic assumptions in the presentations of the Taoiseach, the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donnell, are that they are taking a fair, reasonable and compassionate approach, but this is a flawed belief.
It is interesting that the Government is seeking to have the Bill discussed in committee rather than on the floor of the House where it can be examined and put under further scrutiny. That would be the right thing to do and we owe it to the people to scrutinise this Bill very carefully and to present to the people the choice which the Government is offering. By all means let us have a debate which is measured, mature and thoughtful, but let that not be a cover for accepting unreasonable, anti-woman, insensitive, unethical, hypocritical and politically-driven proposals. These proposals come before us because the Taoiseach made a commitment in the course of a campaign, although it was not in the programme for Government, and now finds himself under pressure from four Independent Deputies and from lobby groups which have put this and previous Governments under pressure on this issue. By 2010, if not sooner, this legislation will be seen as a time-warped reflection on society and social policy, as Government hypocrisy. It is utterly extraordinary on the one hand to talk of excluding suicide and of criminalising a desperate woman and threatening her with 12 years imprisonment if she attempts to have an abortion while on the other hand to protest loudly that the Government will in no way deter such a woman from going to England for an abortion. The Taoiseach did so at his press conference, the Minister has done so in the House and the Bill does so on page 3.
On the one hand the legislation denies that 7,000 Irish women have abortions in England every year. We have seen the statistics recently which show that the number is increasing. The denial of this fact looms over the legislation which criminalises the women involved and excludes suicidal women from having a procedure to save their lives. That is extraordinary.
Of course, laws alone cannot deal adequately with the tragic realities of crisis pregnancies but surely our Constitution does not have to be used in this extraordinary way. Combining a law and a constitutional change into a single instrument reduces the constitutional powers and obligations of Members of this House. Our Constitution is not the right place to deal with this sensitive and difficult personal crisis for women. If we wanted to help women in this crisis we would not criminalise them in the Constitution. We would not write the kind of measures proposed here into the Constitution. We would be dealing with this issue by way of legislation. Why are we putting the morning after pill into the fundamental law of our written Constitution? Why should a new method of incorporating a law into the Constitution be used on this occasion and on this issue when the crisis for the woman concerned will not be averted in any way by this measure?
This is an extraordinary and bizarre way to meddle with the Constitution, which has stood us in good stead, and it does not address the issue. The format proposed to deal with the issue of abortion could be called an emergency and exceptional one. If we were serious about dealing with the issue we would handle it in a totally different way. The tone of the Minister's speech seems to envisage hordes of women rushing for abortions like lemmings over a cliff, if the legislation is not passed. The Government appears to assume that this Bill and the medical profession are the only constraints on Irish women using abortion. Are we saying that a constitutional amendment is critical in stopping thousands more Irish women seeking an abortion or that it is the instrument which will protect the country? What about Irish women's good judgment and their demonstrated commitment to parenting and mothering over generations? Deputy Stagg spoke very well about the assumption that Irish women cannot be trusted and that a constitutional amendment is necessary to stop this extraordinary move that Irish women will make in relation to their pregnancies.
There is a lack of basic trust about how Irish women handle pregnancy. The endless references to social abortion are an example of intellectual acrobatics. These statements tell us much about the speakers' views of the hundreds of thousands of women who have already gone to England for abortions. Deputy Mitchell has referred to the isolation of these women. Isolation has affected not only the women concerned but often their families and their partners. Now it is proposed to amend the Constitution and to criminalise them to an extraordinary degree. It is almost as if such Irish women are seen to act with inferior social motives and do not have good enough reasons to do what they do. The proposal is a commentary on these women who are not willing to become physical and mental wrecks. It is almost as if we question their qualification as Irish women. Are they only good enough to be dumped somewhere else?
We are concerned with the effects of Sellafield but this is tantamount to us asking England to take our women in these difficult situations, women that we do not want to talk about or deal with in any comprehensive way.
What is the assumption about the UK and its medical services and how we intend to use them, now and in the future? The references to freedom to travel appear to suggest that it is the opinion of the Government that English based doctors and nurses are capable of acts which in this proposal are close to homicide and which, if undertaken here, will attract equivalent sanctions. Yet, we are happy to allow women to travel to England.
The Bill is tainted with a fundamentalism which locks women's reproductive rights into a constitutional framework in an extraordinary way. It amounts to a form of foetal protectionism which fails to find a middle ground of accommodating the rights of pregnant women to be treated with due regard. The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy O'Donnell, put it very well when, in a speech in 1995 on reproductive rights, she referred to the hard won rights of Irish women. It is disappointing to note the different tone she is adopting now but I recommend that people read the speech she made then.
Am I to understand as a woman, mother and Deputy that the only things standing in the way of Irish women descending into this unstoppable morass of abortion seeking behaviour are the medical profession and this proposed amendment? I do not apologise for repeating what has been said, that the tone of the amendment is patriarchal and misogynist in its entirety. It implies that women who travel to England are extraordinary, that they do not really belong here and that they are not Irish. Indeed, there is almost a denial of the reality of their existence, apart from the reference to the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, which must be welcomed. I hope we will be able to discuss in greater detail the statutory instrument to establish it.
Why are the hands of the Oireachtas being tied in terms of helping these women from a legislative point of view, now or in the future? Why is the Constitution being perverted to deal with this issue? It is an abandonment of democracy in an attempt to pander to a lobby group. It also amounts to a control of women's reproductive rights.
The choice being presented is false and flawed. A number of Deputies, especially in the Fianna Fáil Party, have said the choice is between accepting this referendum or abortion on demand. That is a false presentation of the facts. There is no evidence that abortion on demand is wanted in this country and it is clear that Irish women should be medically protected where there is a threat to their life as a result of a pregnancy. Any right minded person would agree with that. Such protection should have legal sanction and we should give obstetricians the protection of the law for the difficult decisions that must occasionally be made in the course of pregnancy. It is equally clear that the morning after pill and contraceptives currently available should be legalised but it is absurd to do this through the Constitution.
Key questions arise regarding the constitutional mechanism, including the way Ireland should be governed. It tips the balance away from the Legislature. Deputy Gay Mitchell referred to the changes involving the President and these are addressed in the Fine Gael amendment. This, and the changes involving the Supreme Court and the ministerial orders which can vary the effects of a constitutional provision raise fundamental questions about the balance of power and the role of the Constitution.
There has been much talk about the extent of the consultation that took place when drafting the legislation but the fact that there was wide consultation does not mean that a right solution will be found. I pay great tribute to the work done by the All Party Committee on the Constitution, chaired by Deputy Brian Lenihan, and the way the consultation process took place. It was excellent and we should use it again as a future model. However, the process illustrated that there were differences of opinion on how to proceed. For example, Dr. Whitaker and his distinguished colleagues said that legislation was the only way forward to deal with the issue of suicide.
Ultimately, this issue involves leadership and a Government decision on taking the best way forward. It is about Government and governance. The Government has not chosen the best way forward, indeed there is an abandonment of Government in the attempt to once again take the constitutional route. The people expressed their opinion in 1992 by voting yes to travel, yes to information and no to the substantive issue.
In terms of the history of the Constitution the mechanism is wrong. Putting detailed legislative provisions of this kind into the Constitution has huge implications for human rights. Section 2(3) refers to aiding, abetting and counselling. It seeks to criminalise actions in areas of communication that fall short of abortion and has the potential to open up huge areas of constitutional challenge on the nature of freedom of expression. The Minister must address this aspect.
The legislation treats women as if they were infantile in their behaviour. It suggests that they are irresponsible and immature and need constitutional safeguards to stop them otherwise committing serious and dangerous acts. I am convinced the Government takes the view that women are almost incapable of making moral decisions.
The eighth amendment of the Constitution, dealing with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, will no longer be vindicated since it is proposed that suicidal women will no longer be protected. The legislation proposes that women will attract less protective worth, which is a serious problem. It must be asked, therefore, if the proposal is reasonable and does it find middle ground. Would a reasonable man or woman consider it appropriate?
Let me consider the approach in the rest of the EU. Ireland will be the only country that will prohibit abortion in its Constitution. Apart from the UK, Ireland will be the only country that will not allow suicide as grounds for an abortion and, apart from the UK, it will be the only country that does not allow the cases of young girls who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest as grounds for abortion. Is the rest of the EU unreasonable? Is it reasonable to remove suicide entirely? Surely a middle ground approach would have been to define mechanisms for the assessment of suicide very carefully. Would the middle ground not leave this issue to the Oireachtas and the legislators, who are elected to enact laws? What would a reasonable mother or father occupying the middle ground want for their 14 year old child, a daughter who is pregnant as result of rape? Surely, at the least they would want to be free to consider a variety of options for her future in this country?
Rape giving rise to pregnancy is a major crisis for the woman involved. The Government's seven point reply cites issues of consent and prosecution. They are almost arguments against rape as an indictable offence, not against it as a ground for abortion.
The Government's reply to the question of incest and pregnancy is tantamount to asking a reasonable man or woman to go along with an incestuous pregnancy. Is there such a thing as a middle ground on incest and a resulting pregnancy? This is a very difficult issue but is a constitutional reply a middle ground response? The Government's middle ground is to pretend it does not happen and to constitutionally say that we will never consider dealing sympathetically through our laws with a young woman who has been raped. Is that reasonable?
For many years the Church prescribed sexual and moral behaviour for women. Why should the State take on this role at a time when separation of Church and State is a given and when religious belief is a ground for non-discrimination in our equality laws? Why should the Government seek to endow one view of the protection of human life with a constitutional lock? As institutional religion recedes among some strata of the population, why should the State advance itself as the new protector, making a charge of the light brigade through our Constitution?
Would a reasonable woman who could be potentially pregnant or her partner be worried by this legislation? They would because unexpectedly their planned and wanted pregnancy could become a health and life threatening condition for the woman, and the Constitution would not protect the family. Such a woman has every right to be worried under this Bill.
There is no certainty the UK will forever permit abortions to be carried out on Irish women who travel to the UK. This area needs further discussion but I do not have time to go into it now.
The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, talked about being sincere, genuine and honest. Women know more than most that many laws have been passed which were honest, sincere and wrong, and this is another of them. It is Pontius Pilate legislation which washes our hands of women, of care and of counselling. It washes our hands of the X and C cases. The proposal is neither reasonable nor middle ground, but injurious and insensitive. It reduces women's rights. It is democracy taking a hit. The Dáil remains the bulwark of democracy, even if good times have caused citizens to take it for granted. There has been consultation; the Government has asked the audience, telephoned a friend and opted for 50:50 as a middle ground. Many people have been asked but the solution is not good enough and I regret that the protective spirit in the Title of the Bill is not directed at women. The Government that expects 60% of women to take up paid employment under the national employment action plan, often without child care, at the same time expects them to accept legislation over their ova in the Constitution. This law infantilises women, who were treated as minors by the Catholic Church in the past. It will not stop one woman from having an abortion in England. It denies the reality of the problem here and expects another country to deal with our social problems. It builds in a constitutional level of denial which is dangerous and frightening. The Constitution will be aesthetically perfect in forbidding abortion, but pity the women whose decisions will spoil this purist picture and who by their reality will be treated as repugnant to the Constitution.
I hope that if this is put to the people they will reject it. I hope the people will get every opportunity in the next few weeks and months to hear in detail and understand the legislation, and I hope we can debate it on Committee Stage in the Dáil.