I congratulate the Chairman on the great job she has done in chairing the committee. It has not been an easy job. It is important also to thank all of the experts and others who have presented to the committee. Their strength and integrity took us all by surprise. Most of us came here thinking we had heard and knew it all, but we now know a great deal more following the honest testimonies of all of our delegates. Their testimonies are to be commended, despite the fact that they were met with a certain amount of hostility.
Although I have been a rights activist for women's liberation and equality practically all of my adult life, I have been struck by the fact that when it comes to equality and access to it in this country, we are playing catch-up. The time has come for us to recognise that the fundamental rights of women over their fertility are necessary to enable them to have rights to everything else. If one cannot control one's own bodily functions - for women they include reproduction - one is being denied one's basic fundamental human rights.
Women and men need appropriate sex education from an early age. We heard from the experts in the Department of Education and Skills that a set of educational tools were provided for children at an early age but that often these tools were trumped by the ethos of the institutions that ran schools.
That, in this country, means 94% of national schools are run by the Catholic Church and the ideas of the Catholic Church trump the idea of full access to proper health education. That means that if the Catholic Church does not approve of the pill, of condoms, of coils or of caps, then children will not learn about the use of these things at an early age. If sex itself is not seen as something to be celebrated, enjoyed and absolutely part of the lives of human beings - and is not acceptable in the Church to be seen as that but rather as just to produce the next generation - then it will be challenging for people to receive a proper sex education in this country. After that, when women do seek contraception, affordability is often a problem. More and more workers are part time or in precarious work and most of these are women faced with low pay and issues such as the exorbitant cost of accommodation who, on top of this are then obliged to pay quite a lot of money just for contraception. They pay €25 a week at a minimum for the pill and when all things are taken into account, such as regular doctors' visits etc., one is probably looking at €150 to €200 every six months on top of everything else they have to meet. The questions of access to sex education when one is young and contraception when one is sexual active must be considered in the context of this entire discussion about the reproductive rights of women and where that is situated in the Constitution.
Personally, although I do not want to personalise this, when I was a young woman I found myself pregnant when contraception failed me. I only knew that was the case after I felt sick every morning and missed periods. When I discovered that I was pregnant and did not in the least bit want to be, the only option for me was to go to England. This was shortly after the eighth amendment was inserted into the Constitution and I was lucky that I had a lot of friends, and my sisters, who had fought in that referendum and who fully supported the decision that I made and the choice that I took, and therefore, morally, financially and every which way, helped me.
I also know that there have been countless women in this country who have faced crisis pregnancies. Crisis pregnancy does not mean unplanned; it means unwanted. These women have not been able or, as I was, as lucky to have that support, to have access to finances, to be able to take a few days off work and to have the back-up of family and friends and partner to do so. Countless women have gone through that lack of access and that lack of solidarity. The notion of shame and an inability to discuss it and be open about it has dominated women's lives, throughout the past decades and probably further back.
We should recognise that Ireland has fundamentally changed. I appeal to members of the committee who have been on the receiving end of total opposition to what we are trying to do here. It is regrettable that they cannot face up to that. There is a whole new generation, in particular, young Irish men and women, who simply will not accept the old order. They are saying, "It is my body. You are not the boss of me. I want to control my own body." That is what is pushing this initiative, the Citizens' Assembly and this committee forward. On top of that, they are also influencing the other generation, which did feel the fear and shame that surrounded them all their lives, as well as the lack of access. This is shown to us by the vibrant demonstrations, and opinion polls and the openness with which we can have this conversation at last and with which we can consider all the issues that surround it.
I thank the Citizens' Assembly for doing a great job. I opposed the idea of it because many see the apparatus of the Citizens' Assembly and this committee as being a delaying tactic. In that context, I have just watched a video from the young men and women who are involved in Strike for Repeal in which they asked the committee to please move on and hurry up, as they need their rights and a referendum on repeal of the eighth amendment, which is exactly my sentiment. Nevertheless, the citizens randomly chosen by RED C did a great job in reflecting this new Ireland, the desire for change and the desire for equality among women.
We have to vote next week on all of these outcomes. Clearly, as somebody who would advocate for free safe legal abortion in this country, I will be voting for repeal simpliciter. I will be voting to back all of the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly and probably will put in an amendment to a number of them. We should also strongly consider making a recommendation to the Dáil or the Oireachtas on the question of criminalisation. It is bad enough to have to put up with the stigma, the shame and the lack of access, particularly if one is a migrant, is living in direct provision, is poor or, as I described earlier, is living as does much of the population, on low pay. It is bad enough having to put up with that but it is shocking to be criminalised for the idea that one might go online and try to access an abortion pill or that on one's return from having had a termination in Britain or Holland or somewhere, that one might feel that one must hide it and feel ashamed of it. If for no other reason, the fact that I have spoken out as a Deputy and a public representative has helped a lot of young women and others to be able to feel they do not have to feel ashamed or stigmatised or quiet about this anymore. A lot of the staff in the Oireachtas have approached me and thanked me for it because that has also meant that we can discard that.
On the wording of the referendum, I believe in a simple choice being put to the population. People are not stupid. They can make up their own minds. I am sure we will have quite a debate about it. Quite simply, we have to ask people a yes or no question, namely, whether they want to repeal the eighth amendment or in other terms, whether they want to remove Article 40.3.3° from the Constitution. Anything else would do a disservice to the women and people of this country, who are intelligent enough to know when the waters are being muddied or anybody is attempting to hoodwink them.
I believe Irish women have waited long enough and this issue has been kicked down the road. I do not want to see the alphabet soup of X, Y, A, B and C, PP or the late Ms Savita Halappanavar ever happen again and I am absolutely certain I speak for the majority of people in this country when I say that. I cannot be absolutely certain that we will achieve a repeal of the eighth amendment but we could make a good start here in this committee by making that honest recommendation to the population and by looking seriously next week at how we vote on the outstanding recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly.
I would say to everybody out there, and particularly everybody on this committee, let us please catch up with the people of this country, particularly the young, who have voted for equality in marriage, who want to have full bodily autonomy and who want to take a path for freedom and equality for mná na hÉireann that is long overdue. I hope we get a good result next week when we vote and then make our report to the Oireachtas.
Finally, we need an early referendum. It has to be in May. Young people have been driving the demand for access to abortion and they will be around in May. They will not necessarily be around in June and July. They are already signing up to be registered to be able to vote and we have to give them that access.