Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) (Foetal Pain Relief) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide for pain relief for the foetus in certain cases of termination of pregnancy; and to provide for related matters.

I thank the ten co-sponsors of the legislation. Last December the all-party Oireachtas life and dignity group published a report on the issues of late-term abortion and foetal pain and I urge all Deputies to read it. The report is available at www.lifeanddignity.ie. The infliction of unnecessary or avoidable pain on human beings, especially those with no capacity to resist, is something that all compassionate societies should seek to avoid. Thankfully, in most areas of modern medicine, this principle is routinely adopted in practice. This is why medical ethics require that surgical procedures, both routine and major, are carried out with the use of anaesthetics and analgesics, except in extreme circumstances where this is not possible. These values also inform our attitudes to the treatment of animals. Under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, vets and farmers are required to use anaesthetics when carrying out any procedure on an animal.

These attitudes to inflicting pain are an acknowledgement that to allow pain and suffering to be inflicted, where it can be avoided, would be an affront to human dignity. This brings me to the subject matter of the Bill before us, namely the pain felt by unborn children in the womb in the context of surgical abortion procedures.

Medical science has known for some time that unborn babies can experience pain from 20 weeks' gestation. However, an increasing body of scientific research, from approximately 2007 onwards, has suggested the brain and nervous system develop at a rate which means unborn babies may feel pain as early as 13 weeks. The latest such study was published last year in the Journal of Medical Ethics. A recent comprehensive review of the scientific literature by two experts, one of whom is pro-choice, concluded unborn babies may experience pain as early as 12 weeks and there was certainly no way to definitely exclude that possibility.

I look forward to discussing the substantial medical evidence which exists in support of the Bill on Second Stage and beyond. The new research and newly available information must prompt a policy response from the Oireachtas, the reason being that abortion on demand is available for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy under the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018.

From 12 weeks onwards, surgical abortions can be carried out in cases of so-called fatal foetal abnormalities or when doctors deem there to be a threat to the life or health of the mother. Against the backdrop of the latest medical evidence, this leaves us with the disturbing possibility that every child subjected to a surgical abortion procedure after 12 weeks on these grounds not only has his or her life ended but has it ended in a manner in which he or she could be subjected to horrific pain and suffering in the process. As human beings and legislators, we cannot stand by and ignore this. Accordingly, this Bill makes a limited change to the 2018 Act by adding a new section requiring that anaesthetics be required for surgical abortions after 12 weeks and that cases in which this occurs be reported in line with the reporting requirements under the Act.

It is important to be clear on what this Bill does not do. The 2018 Act would remain in force, so Members on all sides of the abortion debate could support this simple humanitarian amendment. The Bill poses no risk to women because in cases in which an anaesthetic cannot be used for any medical reason, doctors can certify this and the provisions of the Bill would not apply. It would cost women nothing nor would there be a significant cost to the State or the taxpayer.

It is now routine for unborn children who are undergoing life-saving or corrective surgery to be given pain relief to ensure they feel no distress during the procedure. Perinatal medicine now treats unborn babies, often as young as 18 weeks' gestation, for a range of conditions, during which care is taken to avoid inflicting pain. In Britain, unborn babies receiving a newly developed surgical technique to correct spinal malformations receive pain relief as a matter of course. All this Bill does is extend the same principle to all procedures carried out on unborn children, including surgical abortions.

The Bill is a concession to our humanity and compassion for all life, no matter what the circumstances. Given the weight of the emerging scientific evidence, this is not an issue we can afford to ignore. As we hear so often in these times, let us follow the science.

For the reasons I have outlined, I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to leading the debate on it on Second Stage.

Is the Bill being opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.