Business of Joint Committee

I welcome viewers who may be watching our proceedings on Oireachtas television to this meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

I wish to raise a number of issues about the workings of this committee, in particular a couple of difficulties that have become apparent as we have gone through our public sessions. I want this to be a committee at which everybody feels they can say what they wish to say without feeling any sense of nervousness or other feelings to witnesses or otherwise. It is quite reasonable for members of this committee to leave the room for a variety of reasons. It has already been indicated in private session that a couple of members must speak in the Dáil presently and there is no doubt certain members will have to speak in the Seanad on occasion. People must leave the room for a variety of reasons. The nature of our business in politics ensures that there is a very busy environment in Leinster House. The message must go out that this is a very important committee that has a very high attendance rate by members and it does happen, on occasion, that people need to leave for a variety of reasons. I just wanted to put that on the record.

If members have concerns, it is better to indicate. If a member has a concern about something another member has said please indicate and I will come to that person at the appropriate time. I do not want members interrupted, which is really important to note. Everybody has a certain amount of time with the witnesses. It is very important that we respect that space for the individual member within the confines of the rules of the Houses of the Oireachtas. When somebody has the floor I want everybody to respect that in so far as is possible. If members have concerns I would appreciate if they could be raised in the committee. If there is an issue that they do not wish to raise in the committee, publicly, I can be approached at any time for a chat if there is something a member wants to discuss.

On the matter of witnesses who present here, witnesses need to be respected. They are professional individuals. They are well used to taking strident cross-examination and questions in circumstances like this one. I have no difficulty with witnesses being asked questions. It is difficult to control the time and there is an issue with regard to the amount of time for members. We have reached agreement in terms of how we will conduct ourselves timewise. Again, if people have issues in that regard please highlight them to me. I am doing my best as Chair to be fair to everybody and that is all I can do.

With regard to a perceived bias in terms of this committee, concerns have been raised again, mainly outside of this room, regarding the witness schedule. The committee itself decided who should attend. I, as Chair, do not choose which witnesses come before this committee. It continues to be the case that any member who believes that any other person or institution should be represented at this committee should make that known to me. Travel by an individual is justified in terms of the method that we agreed at the outset of this committee. Any concerns about specific witnesses should be raised ideally with me and not with the media so that I can be put on notice of any issues that members have. I refer in particular to the Centre for Reproductive Rights where issues have been expressed about fundraising and issues in the media. Again, I am seeking to address this matter and will come back to the committee.

At the outset I just wanted to be really clear on a few issues. Our witnesses are present and some of them have travelled. We are very grateful to them for their attendance. I want to move on in that regard, subject to Deputy Mattie McGrath making a comment. I want to give him an opportunity to address an issue that he has raised, and wants to raise in public, that follows on from last week. The Deputy has the floor.

I do not mind waiting until our guests have finished but I want to comment in public session.

I can take it now.

I anticipate that it will only take the Deputy a couple of minutes to clarify his position.

I wrote to the Chairman and thank her for the opportunity to speak.

I want the Chair to note that I absolutely reject the allegations made against me by Senator Jerry Buttimer in my absence last week, he accused me of glibly quoting what he described as reports from Duke University and suggested that I was doing so in a manner that was dishonest.

I want to put it on record that the research I referred to was performed at one of the premier universities in America and in the world. It was published in a respected peer reviewed medical journal entitled Prenatal Diagnosis. If Deputy Buttimer and his consultants had more carefully reviewed this study they would have noted that the authors recruited the majority of participants from a pre-existing study database, the Hereditary Basis of Neural Tube Defects study conducted at Duke University Medical Center and only approximately one third of the participants originated from social media. Objective reporting on the study would recognise that the authors reported a possible bias based on the recruitment source; they recognised that there was a difference in severity of symptoms in the two groups, and recognising this potential influence on results, made source of referral a covariate in the analysis to limit the source impact.

Cope et al. is a comparative study of women and their outcomes after terminating or carrying a child with anencephaly to term. It is not, as some might believe after listening to Senator Buttimer and Professor Fergal Malone, simply a report from women recruited from social media who carried a child to term with anencephaly. This study offers important insights into outcomes for women after termination of pregnancy following a diagnosis of anencephaly in contrast with outcomes where the pregnancy was continued. To dismiss this study is scientifically unreasonable but it might be understandable if there were significant data to suggest that termination of the life of an infant with anencephaly had no impact on mothers or improved the medical health of mothers later in life. The fact is there is no such study and all we are left with is the unsupported opinions of those who are committed to the expansion of abortion services. It is dismaying to see anyone being dismissive of research that identifies poor mental health outcomes for women related to abortion after a diagnosis of anencephaly simply because they do not suit a pro-abortion narrative.

I thank the Deputy. Senator Buttimer has indicated. I am not going to open this up to a debate by the whole committee.

That is fine. Can I make a brief comment?

I am glad that Deputy McGrath has promoted me to the position of Deputy, with which I am very happy.

It is a pity that he did not do his homework properly.

I do my homework properly always. We are going to have more people marched out here and there will be a reasonable debate.

Professor Malone, in his remarks last week, who is an eminent qualified person, answered the charges levelled in the paper put forward. I did not accuse Deputy McGrath of any dishonesty and he can check the record of the committee.

The Deputy can check the record of the committee and he will find that I never used the word "dishonest".

I did not do so. The Deputy can present that to me if he so wishes.

I respect the right of any member to have a view on this committee. I chaired the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for five years impartially and fairly and I have acted in the same way on this committee. If the Deputy wants to engage in any further personal attacks then he can do so at his peril because it is only an attention-grabbing headline by him. I welcome the Deputy back to the committee.

Sorry, we are leaving it at that now.

No, I object. The Chairman opened the committee by saying that people would have to leave. First, I am sorry for elevating Senator Buttimer. That was an omission on my part and I correct the record any time I am wrong. We have checked the records and the words that were used. We have checked the blacks.

I had to leave this committee. I was asked by the clerk and the Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, of which I am a member, to leave here and attend for a quorum. That happens all of the time.

I have already addressed that issue.

Yes, Senator Buttimer has, again glibly, welcomed me back to the committee. I must also leave to speak in the Dáil on European affairs and I have tabled amendments on other issues. Are we going to have this continual Tweeting if we leave the room? It is ridiculous and it does not happen at any other committee.

I thank the Deputy.

I ask the Chair-----

I was actually referring-----

Sorry, listen.

I was referring, if I may, to Deputy McGrath last week, who said that he would leave the committee, being outside the gate when we were all in here.

I never leave, as a habit.

I was not referring to that at all, Deputy McGrath.

Excuse me, members. I have allowed a few minutes to clarify an issue for Deputy McGrath.

I am grateful for that.

We have witnesses present. I was simply making the point that we need to be more professional in our approach-----

-----and I hope that members will work with me on that.

Before I introduce our witnesses-----

Can the witnesses be allowed to sit over there and the members of the committee sit down here? I ask because I think there has been some interaction between people sitting there and the witnesses. Such a seating arrangement would be better for the witnesses.

I did not notice anything.

The members can sit wherever they like.

(Interruptions).

I sat here last week and I did not interact with anyone other than when one of the guests offered me water.

Unless it is a major issue I propose that we just continue. I am not going to move members unless they wish to do so. I note the point made by Deputy Coppinger. Ideally, perhaps members would sit-----

One cannot sit with one's back to them.

There is an argument for not sitting with one's back to witnesses.

I am not getting into that now. People are sitting where they are sitting for today.