We have an opportunity now as an Oireachtas and as a country to right what I believe is an historical wrong and something that has caused harm and pain to thousands of Irish women, and in many cases their partners and families. As a member of the cross-party Oireachtas committee that examined this matter and looked at the Citizens' Assembly recommendations, I feel I can say that after almost four months of work on that committee, meeting for around seven hours per week and doing many additional hours of preparatory work, I am quite well-informed on every aspect of this debate. I have heard hours of evidence and testimony on this matter. I do not believe that anyone can seriously suggest that the matter has not been properly debated or that proper process was not followed. We had a Citizens' Assembly, chaired by the eminent Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. We then had the cross-party Oireachtas committee on the eighth amendment, and we now have debate here in this House, with the entire process culminating in a vote by the Irish people in a referendum. We have properly discussed and debated this issue at length and the time for talking is very much over. It is now time to vote on the issue and to move forward.
There are those who challenge the process and have attempted at every opportunity to undermine it simply because they did not like the outcome. No evidence has ever been produced to back up the spurious claims that the Citizens' Assembly or the Oireachtas committee were somehow rigged or biased. The reason no evidence was forthcoming is because those claims were ridiculous. It was a cheap and lazy potshot across the bow by some who say that they do not like what they are hearing and do not like the outcome and that the only explanation is that the process must be wrong. The process was not wrong. It was properly conducted and I was very proud to be part of that process. I am sure if the process had produced for them a more palatable outcome they would be singing the praises of the process and everyone involved.
Various figures have been put forward for the numbers of Irish women who have travelled to the United Kingdom for an abortion, such as 200,000 since 1970 or 180,000 since the eighth amendment was inserted into the Constitution in 1983. However, we cannot know for sure because those figures only take account of the women who gave Irish addresses when they went to the United Kingdom. Many women did not do so and the overall figure is, therefore, higher. The key point is that the eighth amendment does not stop Irish women from having abortions but, rather, exports the problem to another country which it allows to care for Irish women. Abortion is very much part of Irish life. I shudder to think of the situation we might be in were it not for the ease of access to the United Kingdom, although I suspect we would probably have dealt with the matter long before now if we had been unable to lean on our neighbour.
The women who have been silenced to date are listening intently to the ongoing debate. If we retain the eighth amendment, we know that legislatively we have gone as far as we can. With the eighth amendment in place, abortion is only permitted in circumstances where the mother will die. That is the status quo. For those who wish to retain the eighth amendment and, therefore, the status quo, it is worth outlining what that means. It means that a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape or that a young girl made pregnant by a family member will be forced to carry the pregnancy to full term against her will and cannot obtain an abortion in her own country. A woman who self-administers the abortion pill is liable to be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison, even if she is pregnant as a result of rape, while her rapist may receive a prison sentence of seven years or less. A woman who has been advised by her doctor that her health will be severely affected by her pregnancy does not have the option of terminating the pregnancy in her own country. Such a woman may be too ill to travel to the United Kingdom or elsewhere and may have other children at home, but that does not matter. A family that receives a devastating diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality in a much wanted pregnancy will not have the choice of terminating the pregnancy in this country. If they choose to terminate it in the United Kingdom or elsewhere, the doctors caring for the woman and her family up to that point will not be able to make the journey with them or even make a referral. Irish women will continue to travel to England to access abortion services or go online to order the abortion pill which they will self-administer at home without medical oversight, as many have done. That is the status quo and what retaining the eighth amendment will mean.
I welcome the opportunity to directly address some of the key concerns raised by those who are against repeal or unsure of how they will vote. I wish to make it clear that they are genuine concerns which should not be dismissed or left unaddressed. Disability is an issue that, unfortunately and disappointingly, has been used to advocate against repeal. Some who argue against repeal have stated providing abortion services in this country will mean advocating to terminate pregnancies where there is a disability. That is a deeply disappointing argument to make and path to take in the debate. I am totally opposed to disability being used as a ground for abortion. I wish to make it clear that this issue was debated by the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which voted categorically against it being a ground for a termination. It is not and should not be part of this debate. Many families of children with disabilities such as Down's syndrome have stated they are utterly disgusted that their children are being used in this way in the campaign. For that to be done is totally wrong.
It has been alleged that abortion will be on demand and unrestricted. Nobody is suggesting abortion be unrestricted. The term "on demand" is deeply insulting to women. We do not suggest one should be able to walk into one's local convenience store and purchase an abortion pill as one would a box of Panadol. What is being proposed is highly restricted and regulated and will be carried out in conjunction with the medical profession. Women buy abortion pills online and self-administer them without medical supervision. That is unrestricted.
It has been argued that GPs will be unable to cope with the demand for abortion services. Doctors for Choice has stated that is untrue and that there is no evidence to support such a claim. Even if only a small number of GPs were to opt to provide abortion services, the demand would amount to approximately one patient per week for each GP. It is untrue that GP services would be overwhelmed by demand.
It has been suggested the right of doctors who do not wish to provide abortion services to conscientiously object will be undermined and taken away. I support the right of every doctor operating in this country to conscientiously object and not provide the service. All that such doctors will be required to do is to refer a patient seeking an abortion to a GP willing to provide the service. The suggestion the right to conscientious objection would fall away or be undermined is not backed up by facts or evidence and is scaremongering of the highest order.
Another argument brought forward as a key concern is that there is uncertainty as to what legislation will be enacted should the eighth amendment be repealed. Legislation indicative of what will be proposed will be put before the people who will be able to see what it is proposed to put before the House if the eighth amendment is repealed. If citizens of this country, having seen the proposed legislation, then vote to repeal the eighth amendment, they will be endorsing that legislation and I will support the vote of the people in that regard. The idea that we cannot trust politicians, as suggested by some politicians, does not hold water. That politicians have themselves suggested this is ridiculous. Deputies are elected to legislate. That is the purpose of this House and every Member of the Oireachtas. If the people do not like what we do in this House, they will have their say at election time and in the polls. That is how our democracy functions.
It has been argued that abortion rates will increase exponentially, that there will be queues around the corner and that the only reason for the current rate of abortion is that women are too lazy to travel, whereas if it were easier and more convenient to procure an abortion, women would be lining up to do so. That suggestion is deeply insulting to women. No woman makes such a decision lightly or would flippantly seek a termination without consideration of what she was doing. The idea that rates will rise and that women will be queueing around the corner is unfounded in evidence or fact and deeply hurtful and insulting to Irish women. During the debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in 2013 it was suggested the floodgates would open as a result of its enactment. The floodgates did not open and we did not have an avalanche of women seeking abortion under the Act. The suggestion was completely disproved and there is evidence to back it up. The debate should always be based on evidence and fact.
It has been stated hard cases make bad law. When asked to address the difficult issues I have outlined such as cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality or a threat to a woman's health or life, persons who oppose repeal of the eighth amendment and abortion services in this country will often deflect, skirt around and attempt to ignore these very real issues. As a Deputy and a legislator, I do not have the luxury of ignoring the difficult cases. How could anyone deflect or skirt around the horrific cases that have come before the courts in the form of many letters of the alphabet such as those of Ms X, Ms C, the A, B and C cases, Ms D and Savita Halappanavar? It is a list of which we should be ashamed and shows that the hard cases are not that rare and are increasing.
Let us reflect for a moment on the current constitutional position. The eighth amendment makes abortion illegal, except in cases where the mother will otherwise die. The thirteenth amendment expressly permits a woman to travel to obtain an abortion in another country, while the fourteenth expressly allows a woman to receive information in Ireland on abortion services in another country. The hypocrisy displayed in the amendments is quite stark. The Constitution provides for a not-in-my-back-yard approach to abortion. I wonder how those who oppose the repeal of the eighth amendment and do not wish to see abortion services in this country feel about the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments.
Are they advocating that we repeal those? Should we begin to stop pregnant women at the airport? If not, why not? If one is totally against abortion and believes it is never justified or necessary, why then are we happy in this country to expressly write into the Constitution that Irish women can go abroad to do something which is illegal here? Why would we allow such a situation to prevail? Are those people happy to maintain the criminalisation of women who have abortions here in Ireland? Are we okay with leaving a potential 14-year sentence for having an abortion, by means of self-administration of the abortion pill, on the Statute Book? I have heard some people who oppose repeal of the eighth amendment say they do not wish to see women prosecuted for having an abortion or for self-administering the abortion pill. Why is that? If we want it to remain illegal, why are we not seeking to prosecute? I maintain that people see the reality of the situation and that it would be a very slippery slope if we were to pursue such a line. It would set us back 100 years. Clearly, they realise how barbaric a situation it would be to lock up a woman for terminating a pregnancy for whatever personal reason she felt she could not continue with it. It should naturally flow from that position that we should decriminalise abortion in our laws.
The abortion pill has been debated widely in recent weeks and months. Its widespread availability in this country was undoubtedly a key factor in helping the committee reach its decision. Ms Justice Laffoy asked us specifically to look at that as the Citizens' Assembly did not have enough time to do so. Some 1,600 deliveries of the abortion pill were made to this country in 2016 and the number is increasing as awareness of the pill's availability increases. The evidence to the committee from medical professionals is that the abortion pill is being taken without any medical supervision and women may be afraid to seek help if something goes wrong, due to criminal sanction. It is the view of the medial profession that this situation is unsafe and poses a real and genuine threat to the life and health of women and girls in this country. It was the strong majority view of the committee that the situation needed to be regulated and made safe as it was only a matter of time before something went wrong and a woman or girl in this country lost her life.
A key part of the report was the ancillary recommendations on sex education and contraception. Unfortunately, that is not getting much attention in the media. Perhaps that is because it is not the most contentious issue and there was widespread support for the recommendations. We must do all we can to reduce crisis pregnancies and to educate women and young girls properly on how to protect themselves in terms of increasing the use of contraception in this country. Even with all the supports and education, there will always be a need for abortion services. We cannot get away from that. Women need to have full control over their health and future family and no woman should have the trauma of rape, incest or a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality further compounded by a lack of compassion and full and proper health services in her own country.
Some aspects of the campaign to date have been disappointing but in other respects it has been heartening and respectful. I am heartened by the respectful debate in my own party. Many of us have opposing views but we have been able to debate the issue in a mature manner and have respect for one another and our differing views. I very much welcome and appreciate the free vote on this issue afforded to my colleagues and me by our party leader and our party policy because I fundamentally believe that it is a very deep and personal choice for each individual member to make. In making that personal choice as a Member of the Oireachtas and in advocating a position we are having an impact on girls and women in this country, and we are having an impact on the provision of proper health care and we must be conscious of that and very cognisant of the impact of our position and what we say.
I mentioned earlier the 200,000 or so Irish women who have travelled to the UK for abortions. They might not talk about their situations or experiences and neither might their partners and families but what the statistics show - I accept they are not the full picture but they give us a clear indication of the reality - is that those women are in every corner of the country, in every county and constituency. It is quite likely that we all know a woman who has been through a very traumatic situation and has made that very long and lonely journey to the UK or elsewhere. I ask people to be very respectful and compassionate and that they are careful with their language and how they articulate their position. While I will always argue and defend the right of every citizen and every Member of this House to have an opinion and to hold their own personal view, it is worth remembering that the statistics we cite are real women who walk among us every day. They may have been silenced but they are very much listening to the debate in this House and outside of it.
A fact that is often overlooked is that the eighth amendment does not affect all women equally. I do not believe I am equally affected as others because my means are different from those of other women. Many women have the financial means to travel to the UK but those most affected by our laws are the poor and most vulnerable women in society, namely, refugees and those too sick to travel. The country is failing those women. In the end, this is a deeply personal and private matter for a woman and the decision should be taken by the woman in conjunction with her doctor and her family.
The debate has the potential to become very hurtful. I have spoken to people involved in the referendum debate in 1983 and some of those who participated, on both sides, say they found the entire process very difficult and that it has stayed with them to this day. The one thing we owe to those women who have been affected and to those who will potentially be affected is to keep the debate respectful and to ensure the facts and the evidence are to the fore. We must not mislead the public in any way. The referendum commission will have a vital role to play in that regard. They key message I have got from speaking to people is that there is confusion, a lack of facts and a lack of information. People are looking for answers to genuine questions. I believe most people are somewhere in the middle ground, which we hear about a lot. We owe it to the citizens of this country to put forward the facts, address their questions honestly and genuinely and show respect for both sides of the debate. If we do that, ultimately I believe the Bill will go through the House in a respectful way. No Member of this House should ever stop the people having their say. The Bill is only asking whether we will allow the Irish people to have a vote on the issue. It is not asking whether one supports repeal or not. It is 35 years since the amendment was inserted into the Constitution and it is important that those who are, arguably, most affected, namely, young women, should have an opportunity to have their say and make their voices heard both to this Parliament and this country.