I wish to share time with Deputy O'Kennedy. This Bill provides for constitutional and legislative reform in relation to the protection of human life in pregnancy. Its proposals, which represent the first legislative response to the legal issues remaining unresolved since the X case in 1992, are fair, reasonable and compassionate. The issue of abortion is a sensitive one for society and it is heartening that the response to the proposals to date has been of a measured, mature and thoughtful nature. There has been none of the rancour that characterised the debates in 1983 and 1992.
It is very important to acknowledge that the law alone cannot deal adequately with the often tragic realities of crisis pregnancy in modern society. On more than 6,500 occasions in the past year alone women giving an Irish address have had abortions in Great Britain. That is about 18 women every single day of the year. Of course many Irish women have made this journey in previous years also. The difficult circumstances faced by these women and the often lonely decision they have made demand sensitive understanding and a compassionate response from us all. We must also strive to reduce the incidence of crisis pregnancy by every reasonable means at our disposal. The law represents only one part of the picture. Education, advice, care and compassion are in many ways much more important. That is why a comprehensive approach is being adopted on the three different planes of Constitution, legislation and practical caring intervention.
The purpose of section 3 is to provide that a medical practitioner or any other person will not be obliged to carry out a procedure to which he or she has a conscientious objection, even though it may not constitute abortion under the Bill. Given that the Bill in effect simply provides legal protection for current medical practice, it is not expected that this provision will have any adverse effect on current practices. Section 4 deals with travel and information. The Bill will protect freedom to travel and the right to information in accordance with the existing provisions in the Constitution which were approved by the people in 1992. It also makes clear that a person shall not be restricted from travelling to another state on the grounds that his or her conduct there would be an offence under this Bill were it to occur in Ireland. The proposals in this Bill represent a fair and reasonable attempt to resolve the constitutional and legal difficulties that have surrounded the issue of abortion since the judgment in the X case in 1992. They are also the culmination of a lengthy and detailed process of consultation and debate. The time has come to move on from that and attempt to resolve the matter.
A pregnant woman should be entitled to whatever medical treatment she may need, even where this may unavoidably place the survival of her unborn child at risk. Any legal doubt about what is permissible in such circumstances must also be removed so that doctors will be able to continue to provide the necessary treatment in accordance with established medical practice. The Irish health care system has an enviable reputation when it comes to the care of expectant mothers and their children and the proposals in this Bill will protect current practice, not change it. A constitutional provision without legislative backing would run the major risk of subsequently being interpreted by the courts in an unanticipated manner. Therefore, the method the Government has chosen is the best way to ensure that safeguards are put in place which spell out straightforwardly what is and what is not allowed. The provisions can be amended only if the people so decide in a further referendum.
The proposed Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill spells out clearly and unambiguously what will be permitted under the law and describes the straightforward constitutional provisions which will govern any future amendment of the law. That means the electorate will have a clear understanding of the meaning and effect of the various provisions in advance of a referendum. The amendment is designed to acknowledge that the issue of abortion is one on which the people wish to have the final say while at the same time leaving the matter primarily in the legislative domain. The Bill will also remove any doubt there may be about the legality of treatment doctors might consider necessary where a pregnant woman suffers from certain rare, life-threatening medical conditions. It will provide certainty for doctors who may have feared that some interventions, although accepted medical practice in such circumstances, might have been unlawful.
Section 1 of the Second Schedule defines "abortion" for the purposes of the Bill as "the intentional destruction by any means of unborn human life after implantation in the womb of the woman". It provides exemption from the definition as abortion of a medical procedure carried out by a medical practitioner at an approved place in the course of which or as a result of which unborn human life is ended where that procedure is, in the reasonable opinion of the practitioner, necessary to prevent a real and substantial risk to the woman's life other than by self-destruction.
In the course of the hearing of medical evidence by the All-Party Committee on the Constitution it became very clear that in a small number of cases of strict and undeniable medical necessity intervention by doctors to safeguard the mother's life can entail or result in the ending of the life of the unborn. On reading the testimony of the all-party committee it becomes apparent that while there are differences of language and interpretation amongst members of the medical profession, their approach to the care of pregnant women and their unborn children is essentially the same. Their objective in all cases is to ensure that women receive all the medical care they need while affording maximum protection to the health of the unborn children.
If the people accept the proposal, the amendment to Article 43 will have effect only if the text of the envisaged Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill is enacted by the Oireachtas within a period of 180 days, otherwise the amendment in its entirety is nullified. The mechanism of making a constitutional amendment conditional on a later legal development was successfully used in the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The proposed constitutional changes on this occasion are designed to ensure that the legislation has a sound constitutional basis and that the careful balance it strikes will not be subject to legal challenge from either side of the argument. They are designed to reassure the people that they will be consulted if a change is proposed in the future.
A "yes" vote in the referendum on the Bill to amend the Constitution will give effect only to the constitutional amendments involved. The only way in which the terms of the legislation on the protection of human life in pregnancy can become law or have any effect is through a separate, subsequent decision by the Oireachtas to enact that legislation. While it may never be possible to satisfy every point of view or to devise a solution acceptable to all, the Government has sought, by fostering a reasonable, calm and structured national debate, to develop a consensus on how the issues arising from the X case and C case judgments might finally be resolved.
In 1997 the Government decided that a Green Paper on abortion would be prepared. This document was published in September 1999 and welcomed by many interested parties as a clear and balanced document, setting out as it did the history of the issues and the different arguments advanced while discussing the principal constitutional and legislative options. The Government referred the Green Paper to the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, chaired by Deputy Brian Lenihan, for consideration. The committee embarked on a process of detailed consultation seeking submissions on the options discussed in the Green Paper. Over 100,000 submissions were received from individuals and organisations. Subsequently the committee held hearings at which the issues were explored in detail with many of those who had made submissions, including representatives of the medical profession and the churches. The committee's proceedings and its report were published in November 2000 and generally agreed to be fair, balanced and of great value in educating and informing public and political opinion.
The proposals that the Government has launched give protection to the life of the unborn human. The purpose of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill is to provide for the amendment of the Constitution to state that the proposed Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill, 2001, shall be the law on abortion in the State. The amendment provides for the operation of a mechanism whereby proposed changes to Article 43 of the Constitution and the text of the proposed legislation on the protection of human life in pregnancy will be put to the people in a referendum. It will also protect best medical practice and remove any doubt about the legality of treatment which doctors consider necessary in the case of rare, life-threatening conditions occurring during pregnancy. The issues have been explored in great depth before the committee. We have listened with open minds to the opinions of the people on the protection of the unborn. We have considered ways and means of advancing in a way that can command the support of all our people. I have consulted my constituents and have no doubt that the Bill, as published, is the best way forward. It is the only way forward.
I have always believed strongly that the unborn child must be afforded every possible legal protection by our society and its laws. My opinion in this regard has not changed in any way during the years. As one sadly observes the level of abortion in most contemporary cultures throughout the world, a most serious question must be asked of modern day standards and priorities.
The practice of abortion, to which I am opposed, is an attack on the innocent defenceless human being at a time of great vulnerability. The legislation before the House will give protection to the unborn child.