I welcome everyone to the meeting. I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Clerk of the Seanad and the Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges for facilitating our request to meet in the Seanad Chamber. This is the first in a series of hearings the joint committee will conduct in the next three days to discuss the implementation of the Government decision following the recent publication of the expert group report on matters relating to the case A, B and C v. Ireland. On Tuesday, 18 December 2012, the Government decided to accept the expert group's suggestion that the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the A, B and C v. Ireland case be addressed by the putting in place of legislation and regulations setting out the current constitutional position, as stated in Article 40.3.30 of the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court.
Members of the committee and I are conscious of the complexity and sensitivity of this issue. For these same reasons, the Government decided that the process of drafting the heads of the Bill and draft regulations in line with its decision would not occur until after the Joint Committee on Health and Children had conducted hearings over three days this week. The Government has stated the aim of its action in this matter is to ensure clarity and legal certainty with regard to the process to be followed in the determination of whether a pregnancy is permissible in cases where there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as opposed to the health, of a woman, as a result of that pregnancy. In doing so we must ensure we take full account of Article 40.3.30 of the Constitution. The Government's decision is confined to the option to be pursued in order to bring regulations and rules to an area which is currently unregulated. As Chairman, it is my intention, with the co-operation of members and witnesses, to facilitate a discussion on current medical guidelines and legal practices with regard to legal and medical expertise, to ascertain the difficulties, if any, legal and medical, encountered by medical experts when making decisions and to provide a forum for the expression of views, recognising the broad range of views in this matter.
When the meetings have concluded, the committee should furnish a report to the Government summarising the oral and verbal contributions it has heard and received from various stakeholders. Over the course of the next three days the committee will hear a wide range of views from legal and medical experts, as well as from churches and advocacy groups, on what issues should be considered when implementing the Government's decision to accept the expert group's suggestions. I hope this will be a positive and constructive discussion giving each witness and committee member the opportunity to express his or her views. I hope we will respect and listen to each other. I intend to ensure the hearings will be conducted in a balanced, fair and calm manner, focusing on the issues which need to be considered in the drafting of the heads of the Bill. While we all recognise that many people have divergent and deeply held views on the issues involved, it is vital that the meetings are held in a manner that is respectful and tolerant.
In drawing up the panel of witnesses and speakers for the hearings members of the committee and Members of the Oireachtas who are not members of the committee suggested names as relevant panellists. These suggestions were considered and invitations were subsequently issued.
In the selection of panellists and witnesses to appear before the committee, we have done our best to ensure a fair and balanced expression of views, which will include contributions from experts, both academic and practising, in the legal and medical fields. In particular, it is of the utmost importance that the Government and Oireachtas are fully aware of the current medical guidelines and practice and how these guidelines have been implemented and operated over recent years.
In order to ensure that all attending and participating in these hearings have a full understanding of the matter at hand, my committee colleagues and I are strongly of the view that we should provide a background and context to the Government decision. For this reason, the hearings this morning will commence with a statement from the Department of Health. This will set out the background to the Government decision, including the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in December 2010 which led to the establishment of the expert review group by the Minister, Deputy James Reilly, and the subsequent publication of its report. The committee recognises that the Department of Health has not yet developed policy detail on this particular matter. Our hearings this week will no doubt feed into that development and into the drafting of the heads of a Bill and draft regulations.
This morning's session will comprise statements by representatives of the Department of Health and the Medical Council. Later today we will hear from the Masters of the maternity hospitals and from the country's foremost practising academic psychiatrists. The insights provided by the witnesses appearing before us in the course of the week will frame the basis upon which the committee will proceed in its efforts to assist the Government in understanding and assessing the issues at hand. Tomorrow we will hear from legal experts on existing constitutional and legal provisions and there will be discussion on how to frame legislation as per the Government's decision. On Thursday the committee will receive the views of the churches and various advocacy groups on the decision being implemented by Government.
I ask my committee colleagues and other Oireachtas Members attending these discussions to bear in mind that our objective is to elicit as much information as possible from the witnesses appearing before us. I am conscious that these discussions are taking place in the eye of the nation and this is a very complex issue on which people hold strong and divergent view points. In that context, I hope we have a constructive, positive and comprehensive debate in the coming days which will allow us to make a thorough report to Government.
I ask my committee colleagues and other Oireachtas Members attending the discussion to bear in mind that our objective is to elicit as much information as possible from our witnesses. I am conscious that we are meeting in the eye of the nation. Given that this is a very complex issue on which many people holddivergent and strong view points, that we have a constructive, positive and comprehensive debate in the coming days on which we can report back to Government.
In accordance with the format agreed at our meeting last night, we will begin with a presentation by the Department of Health, followed by a statement from the Irish Medical Council. After that we will have 80 minutes for discussion, comprising 60 minutes for questions by members and 20 minutes for non-members, with ten minutes at the end for summation. I remind all Members that they should put questions rather than making Second Stage speeches. The 80 minutes set aside for discussion allow time for responses from the delegates.