The recent death of Savita Halappanavar has shocked people throughout the world. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of cities and towns throughout the State to express their shock and their sympathy to her husband, Praveen. I also sympathise with Praveen Halappanavar and the family of his wife, Savita.
While we do not know the exact circumstances surrounding her untimely death and must await the various investigations, there is no doubt that questions remain unanswered and need to be answered. The terrible tragedy has reignited the debate on abortion, which has divided Irish society for many a decade and is doing so yet again. Whenever the issue of abortion is debated publicly, labels of pro-choice and pro-life are used to describe people with opposing views. If one was to apply one of those labels to my own view on abortion I would be described as pro-life. I do not believe in abortion. I never have and I never will. I know there is a group of people who, when they hear me say that, will be disappointed and disapproving. Their opinion of me will be that I do not respect women or that I am trying to dictate what a woman can or cannot do with her body. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing I say, however, will change their opinion, just as they will not change mine.
However, as strongly as I oppose abortion I also strongly oppose any attempt to stigmatise or criminalise women who have had abortions. I may have my strongly held personal views on the issue but I want to make it clear that those who attempt to criminalise or stigmatise women who have had abortions are wrong to do so and need to stop.
Some will say it is easy for me to stand here and state that I am against abortion. I will never find myself faced with that predicament. They are correct.
I do, however, know what it is like to suffer the loss of an unborn child. I know what it is like as a father to stand helplessly by while the life of an unborn child I and my wife created slipped away, and I have had to endure that pain on more than one occasion. Despite my opposition to abortion, I believe that women are entitled to the best medical care and treatment throughout the duration of their pregnancy. I also accept that, in rare cases, doctors must intervene to save the lives of women, even if by doing so it is inevitable that this will end the pregnancy, resulting in the death of the unborn child due to immaturity. It is a sad but unavoidable reality.
There are those listening to this debate tonight who, like me, oppose abortion and there are those who believe that abortion should be an option available to women regardless of the circumstances, but that is a debate for another night. Tonight we are discussing a very specific set of circumstances, the provision of medical intervention in life and death situations. As someone who describes himself as pro-life, I could not in good conscience stand over a health system that would hesitate or delay, due to a lack of legal clarity, giving appropriate medical treatment to women when there is a real and substantial risk to their lives. To stand over such a situation is not pro-life in my opinion as both lives may be lost in cases where that medical treatment is delayed or denied.
The motion before us this evening calls for the Government to do two things: to publish the report of the expert group and to legislate for what is known as the X case. On the first point I welcome the commitment by the Government to publish the report next week. On the latter, I know there are some who will be of the opinion that there is no need to legislate for the X case as existing Medical Council guidelines provide adequate protection for women whose lives are at a real and substantial risk. On reading the guidelines, one can see why some people may hold that view. The Medical Council guidelines state: “Abortion is illegal in Ireland except where there is a real and substantial risk to the life (as distinct from the health) of the mother." The guidelines go on to state that "it may be necessary to intervene to terminate the pregnancy to protect the life of the mother, while making every effort to preserve the life of the baby". The argument could be made, and has been made, that there is no reason, excuse or legal impediment that a woman faced with a real and substantial risk to her life would be denied a medical intervention to save her life, even if that intervention results in the termination of her pregnancy. I say that, however, as a person who will never be faced with having to make that decision to intervene and give medical treatment to a mother whose life is at risk which results in the termination of her pregnancy.
The issue we face as a society is how the Supreme Court ruling and the Medical Council guidelines are viewed and implemented, or not being implemented as the case may be, by those tasked with the responsibility of intervening to save the life of a woman. No one, whether they are pro-life or pro-choice, could argue that we can allow a situation exist where there may be uncertainty about when a member of the medical profession can intervene to save a woman’s life. There is no room for grey areas here; women die in those grey areas and that is unacceptable to me as someone who is pro-life.
As I said previously, I know many doctors are seeking legal clarity and the Government has said that it will provide this legal clarity but has, to date, failed to state how or when it will do so. I want to see this certainty given to our doctors. More importantly, I want women who are faced with a real and substantial risk to their life to know that if there is a need for medical intervention to save their lives, they will be able to get it without delay. For me this is what any legislation brought forward needs to achieve: certainty for the medical profession and reassurance for women. Equally as important, however, for me given my opposition to abortion is the protection of the life of the unborn. Any medical intervention to save the life of the mother must also be matched with every effort being made to save the life of the unborn. This will not always be the case but it must be the objective.
Over the past few days I have received many telephone calls, e-mails and texts from those who share my opposition to abortion, asking me not to support the motion before us tonight.
They fear that the introduction of any such legislation giving legal clarity on when doctors can intervene is the thin edge of the wedge and may result in the opening of the floodgates to abortion on demand. Introducing legislation to give legal clarity to the medical profession, to give reassurance to women faced with a real and substantial threat to their lives and to ensure that every effort is made to save the life of the unborn, will not, in my opinion, open any floodgate to abortion on demand.
Some have also tried to suggest that Sinn Féin, in putting forward this motion, is pro-abortion. Sinn Féin is opposed to abortion on demand, a term I dislike. What Sinn Féin is in favour of, and we have never hidden this fact, is legislation to protect the lives of women faced with a real and substantial risk to their lives. We make no apology for that. As an individual who is pro-life and opposed to abortion, I must set aside my own personal views, no matter how uncomfortable that may be for me personally, and face up to my responsibility as a legislator. Failure to do so could put the lives of women at risk and I am not willing to allow that happen while I have the power to do something about it, regardless of my personal view on abortion. I will not bury my head in the sand like those who served in this House before me for the last 20 years and try to wish the problem away. I refuse to do that and shame on anyone who does.