Business of Joint Committee

I welcome members and those watching the proceedings on the Oireachtas television channel. Before we commence, I would like to read a letter I received this morning from the Danish ambassador on the comment made a number of times during meetings of the committee that the policy of the Danish Government is to eradicate Down's syndrome. The letter, dated 6 December 2017, states:

Dear Senator Noone,

I write to you as chairperson of the Joint Committee on Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It has come to our attention that statements have been made during the meetings about Denmark's policy and practice on abortion, which are not correct. I would therefore like to draw you and your committee's attention to the following points.

The Embassy has been in contact with the Danish health authorities. Let me summarize our views in the following points:

1. The right to abortion in Denmark

According to S 92 of the Health Act, a woman may have her pregnancy interrupted without permission, if the procedure can be implemented before the end of the 12th pregnancy week.

In cases where the woman is beyond the 12th pregnancy week, she may under certain conditions have an abortion, cf. S 94 of the Health Act.

In any case it is important that the women who want an abortion be provided the necessary advice and help so that they have a good basis for deciding if they really want to have their pregnancy interrupted.

2. Abortion due to the finding of Down’s syndrome (trisomy 21) at the fetus.

According to S 94, subsection 1, No. 3, of the Health Act it is possible to have an abortion after the 12th week if there is a danger that the child will have a serious physical or mental disorder, due to hereditary systems or damage or disease in the fetal condition including Down's syndrome.

The need to obtain permission after the 12th week is based on the fact that a number of studies have shown that Down's syndrome and other malformations can only be determined when the woman is close to her 12th pregnancy week.

There are no limits as such in the legislation when an abortion may be authorized. However it follows from S 94 (3) of the Health Act that if the fetus is considered to be viable, abortion can only be allowed if there is a significant danger for the child's physical or mental suffering. In practice, the limit of viability is considered to be about 22 weeks.

As there must be special circumstances for having an abortion, if the fetus is viable, the existence of Down's syndrome in the child is not sufficient to get the abortion.

Point No. 3 is a table of data which I can make available. These data can also be found on a website, the link to which we will make available on our website.

The letter continues:

4. In 2016, there were 4 children born in Denmark with Down's syndrome after prenatal diagnosis and there were 20 children born with Down's syndrome diagnosed after birth.

5. In general it should be noted that it is not the policy of the Danish health authorities to eradicate Down's syndrome, but it is their duty to provide the pregnant woman with the best possible basis for her to make her own decision about her pregnancy.

Best wishes

Carsten Sondergaard

ambassador

Following on from the legal advice we heard earlier and previously, we have completed our consultations with experts. Today we commence the decision-making process on our recommendations for inclusion in our report which we intend to present to the Oireachtas on 20 December, the final day of the three-month deadline imposed on the committee by the Houses of the Oireachtas for the publication of its final report. It will then be a matter for the Houses to consider the committee's report and decide how best to facilitate a vote of the people. As I said, today there will be an opportunity for each member to express his or her views which will feed into next week's meeting, in which we hope to focus on the decisions that need to be made. With the agreement of the committee, I suggest members confine their comments to ten minutes. While I accept that some will need more time than others, it is important that everybody gets the time he or she needs to make his or her views known. I will call members in the order in which they indicated, commencing with Deputy Bríd Smith.