I am particularly pleased to rise to my feet in the Dáil for this Second Stage debate on the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018. For a very long time I did not imagine that this legislation would materialise, much less that I would be a parliamentarian speaking here in the Dáil on it. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and underscore the importance of the legislation to past, present and future generations of women and their families. That cannot be overstated. For decades, thousands of our women faced a lonely and traumatic journey to England and Wales to access abortion services. The shame imposed on those women and girls by the church, politicians and conservative elements in society was wrong and cruel. Since 1983, a momentum against the deeply oppressive eighth amendment to the Constitution grew in scale and support. In truth, repeal was a campaign decades in the making. As with so many other big social changes, a long and arduous journey is often followed by rapid social adjustment and change. As is often the case when it comes to civil and human rights, the truth is that the people led and the politicians followed.
I take this opportunity to again record my admiration and appreciation of all of those activists, women and men, North, South, east and west, who were to become Together for Yes, to all of those who fought the good fight and who led from the front. This may have been the first big political campaign for young activists. I commend their youthful advocacy and their optimism, energy and vision for their country. I also commend the veterans, if I can use that term, people who for decades had taken a stand for women, for our bodily integrity, right to choice, right to healthcare and right to safety in maternity hospitals. There is no doubt that for a very long time those advocates and campaigners walked a very lonely path. For they and for our youthful advocates the introduction of the legislation is momentous. We divide on many things in this Dáil and I am often rightly a critic of the current Administration but I commend the Government on bringing forward this legislation.
On 25 May this year, 1,429,981 million people voted to repeal the eighth amendment of the Constitution. Yet today women will still travel to Britain for an abortion and their journey will still be unduly harsh despite the collective support expressed to them by the Irish people. Members of the Oireachtas now have a dual responsibility to those women. We must ensure that abortion services are available in Ireland from January next year, and that this legislation will vigorously uphold those fundamental rights the people voted for in May.
We must continue to hear the concerns raised by women, their families and the medical profession on the shortfalls of this legislation. We should to open to a constructive and informed conversation. We should also be open to amendments that will strengthen the Bill in the interests of women and the medical practitioners who care for them. This legislation will shape abortion services in Ireland for decades to come. In practical terms, this is a new strand to healthcare delivery so we must get it right.
This legislation will require very careful thought and deliberation on Second Stage and, more crucially, on Committee Stage. It is my hope that on Committee Stage all Members will have a capacity to listen to, comprehend and translate expert opinion, be it medical or otherwise. I hope that, if it proves necessary or useful and helpful, the experiences of women will again be considered as we craft the legislation. In the course of the debate on repeal, the experiences of women and their families who were faced, for example, with a fatal foetal anomaly, were crucial in setting the tone of the debate and deliberations. It is important that real human experiences do not get lost in a technical exercise of legislative text and amendment.
To get it right we must act in good faith and with goodwill. I know there are different views on abortion across this House, and I respect that deeply, but we also know that the people, collectively, have spoken. When they repealed the eighth amendment, they did not do so in a vacuum of knowledge. The debate was well informed and created light as well as heat. In the course of the debate, Irish public opinion was aware of the general shape of the legislation that would follow. As we debate and deliberate, and as we put forth our view as democratically elected representatives, on our behalf and on behalf of our constituents, I believe goodwill demands that the legislation is allowed to proceed. I ask that we have a full, deliberative and frank debate but I appeal to colleagues not to abuse the rules, regulations and latitude of the Houses of the Oireachtas to delay legislation which already carries the democratic imprimatur and approval of the people.
It is important that we are inclusive of all women. I wish to include trans persons and those who identify as non-binary. For some, those are new concepts and terms, but they describe very real human beings. Regardless of income or where they live, women must be able to access services equally.
There are a number of specific areas within the legislation that demand further attention and I will refer briefly to them.
Section 13 provides for a consideration or waiting period of three days from when a medical practitioner certifies a woman for a termination to when she can have it. I am conscious that last month doctors, in evidence to the Joint Committee on Health, described the three-day waiting period as unnecessary and told us that it did not have a medical rationale. The decision to impose this provision within the legislation is, therefore, perhaps more political than medical. Perhaps we might reflect on the fact that it is a product of a paternalistic mindset of Governments and legislative drafters of old, a mindset that we had hoped had been set aside. This provision must be considered carefully. We must ask ourselves whether it will prove to be a barrier for women living in rural Ireland or the North of Ireland who will have to access services for the time being across the Border. The Minister and his Cabinet colleagues know that many women will not feel comfortable in seeking medical care close to home. The people may have voted to repeal the eighth amendment, but let us be realistic: there is still stigma. I want this provision to be considered and weighed very thoughtfully.
I draw attention to the offences section at the front of the Bill. I note that it features ahead of the sections dealing with medical care and that bothers me. The offences section can and will create a chilling effect. The message to women's doctors is that criminal sanctions must be their first concern and perhaps the care of the women merely secondary. That cannot happen and any impression to that effect must be set to rest. I cannot imagine that this sits well with the Government. My colleague, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, has outlined Sinn Féin's view. We do not agree that medical professionals who invoke a conscience clause can be exempt from referring a patient to receive the necessary medical treatment they seek. Those involved in the medical profession have raised a number of additional concerns with the Minister about the legislation and they must be listened to.
We now have an opportunity to redress associated areas of medical care. I welcome the Minister's commitment that abortion services will be provided free of charge. This commitment must be extended to women living in the North of Ireland who continue to be denied fundamental rights that have been secured here in Ireland and Britain. It is also time to consider equitable access to contraception for women and girls. This, too, must be free of charge. The Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution recommended the introduction of a scheme to provide contraception free of charge for all persons who wish to avail of it within the State. Committee members voiced a particular concern that personal costs of contraception could be prohibitive. They acknowledged a finding of the Central Statistics Office's general population survey in 2010 in which 18% of respondents had found the cost of contraceptives to be an issue.
The discriminatory language used in the legislation must be addressed. The trans community played an important role in the repeal campaign, as did non-binary people. As communities who campaigned alongside each other for the varied rights the State has historically denied us, our struggles are interwoven. The language used in the Bill needs to reflect the diversity of society and must be absolutely inclusive in its intent. I, therefore, urge the Minister to reflect on the demands made by transgender and non-binary activists and medical professionals for the inclusion of gender neutral language. If this matter is not addressed now, we know that it will be addressed in the future after long campaigning for a right to which we already know the people concerned are entitled.
I commend the appointment of Dr. Peter Boylan to assist in the implementation of arrangements for termination of pregnancy and related services. Dr. Boylan has been a tremendous champion for women's healthcare and I am sure undertook this role during the repeal campaign at some considerable personal cost. We are eternally grateful to all of the medical practitioners who campaigned alongside us, the Irish abroad who supported us, the women who shared their deeply personal stories in order that wider society could truly understand the cruelty of the eighth amendment and the new generation of activists who have emerged. The final Bill must reflect the rights secured by the people earlier this year.