I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on this matter which has occupied the letters columns of the newspapers, the airwaves, our television stations and, indeed, the minds of a great number of people. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I wish him well in his portfolio which is a very interesting one, an innovative one, and despite the fact that we are in a time of grave economic crisis, I still feel that the area of arts and culture must be carefully cultivated and I have no doubt that, in his good hands, this will be the case.
I should like to state at the outset that, although we have listened to the arguments at great length, each Senator in his or her turn should not feel in any way inhibited from going over those arguments and speaking on them from a personal perspective. This, indeed, is what I intend to do. Prior to the general election of June 1981, when it became apparent that I would be a candidate and when I was ratified, I got a very charming, innocuous letter from proponents of this amendment requesting my support for a pro-life amendment to the Constitution, and asking me to state my position on abortion.
I was interested in the letter. I was interested in the subject because it was not the first time I had come up against decision-making in the area of abortion. If I may introduce a personal note, I should like to place on record the fact that together with my husband, who was pursuing a career in obstetrics and gynaecology in England and Scotland, I had the good fortune to have a very close insight into the working of large teaching hospitals in the area of obstetrics and gynaecology in Britain after the Bourne amendment had become law and when abortion, virtually on demand, was a feature of such maternity hospitals.
When my husband made application for senior registrar positions as he advanced in his career in obstetrics and gynaecology, one of the questions generally put at interview was: "But of course, doctor, you will participate and take the workload from the obstetrician or gynaecologist in the area of abortion?" Now, my husband, who is not a Catholic, and who, indeed, is not a Christian has very serious reservations about abortion and is totally opposed to it. So, of course, he was unable to comply with this request which was made to him at interviews, and it became increasingly difficult to obtain senior registrar posts in obstetrics and gynaecology in teaching hospitals.
Consequently a joint decision was made to abandon what was a very promising career in obstetrics and gynaecology because the necessary compliance with the rules and regulations obtaining at that time were not possible. So, by a peculiar twist of fate and a complete turning of the wheel, I find myself back in Ireland as a result, to some extent, of the abortion issue and how we as a family faced it. I now find myself on my feet in Seanad Éireann speaking about the proposal to amend the Constitution. It is ironic, but I am very happy to have my feelings and my insights on this issue expressed and placed on record in this House.
When I got this very nice sounding, harmless, worthy letter from the pro-life amendment people I was very impressed by their proposals to insert an amendment into the Constitution because I am pro-life. Like the last speaker and indeed many other speakers who have addressed themselves to this issue, it is a great pity that one has to adopt a very defensive attitude on this and that before even embarking on discussing the issue one has to make a declaration that one is pro-life and anti-abortion. In order to set the record straight and so that there would be no area of ambiguity as far as I am concerned, I make this declaration. In many senses I resent having to make it and to me it points up some of the ugly features of this campaign, that people are forced to declare their position and to flaunt their colours, if you like, on this matter. It should go without saying that all elected Members of this Oireachtas and all responsible people in Irish society share the feeling that abortion is abhorrent.
Back again to the letter: I signed it. I think it asked "Do you support the idea of a constitutional referendum to ensure that abortion will not become legal in Irish society?" I very happily signed it. "Do you or do you not support abortion?" I very happily signalled my position in that matter. The Leader of my party, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, had so indicated and the Leader of the Fianna Fáil Party had also made the same commitment.
On the face of it such an amendment seemed to be an expression of our Christian values and I little thought of the furore and the outburst and the controversy which it would subsequently provoke. I know for a fact that few, if any, of my parliamentary party colleagues in either of the Houses fully appreciated all the implications of this proposal at that time. Sadly some of them do not seem to appreciate the implications of that proposal even now. I still believe that a proclamation of the sanctity of human life, all human life including that of the unborn child, would be a signal expression of the aspirations of the Irish nation if such were possible. I am beginning to doubt that it is possible to do this, much as I would like to see it happen.
Some of the finest legal brains and the finest legal minds in this country have busied themselves since June 1981 in formulating an appropriate amendment with a distinct lack of success. Now the arguments put forward in favour of an amendment suggest that the Supreme Court might, in response to a test case, overturn the 1861 Act on the grounds that it infringed on the right to privacy. A precedent had been set in this country as a consequence of the McGee case in the area of contraception and in the United States the same thing has occurred in relation to abortion. The thrust of this argument at the time the letter was produced and the commitment made did not impress me as I believed the 1961 Act — and I still believe this — conferred adequate protection on the unborn child, but as an expression of the values we cherish I, at that time, welcomed the idea and I still welcome the idea if it is possible to do so.
I was, and am, deeply concerned with the shocking statistics which suggest that officially 3,000, and possibly unofficially as many as twice that number, of Irish women per year are having abortions outside this State. These figures would suggest that as many as 50,000 Irish women living in Ireland today have undergone the degrading experience of abortion. I had hoped that a declaration of our respect for the sacredness of all human life, and in particular for the sacredness of the unborn child, would help to promote a climate of understanding and compassion for women who found themselves pregnant outside or sometimes inside marriage and that such a climate would encourage these women not to take this way out of their difficulty. I also hoped that society would become more compassionate and would open its heart to these women. No one in political life anticipated the complexities in all their disparate shapes that the amendment would bring about.
Since the inception of the campaign to amend the Constitution my thinking has developed on the matter and I suspect and I hope that I am not alone in that. I sense that outside this House, in the hairdressers, in the pubs, in the work place, in areas where people congregate, there is a shift in opinion and a change of emphasis in this area. I regard this as a hopeful sign. Now I have grave doubts of the wisdom of endorsing an amendment, and in particular this wording which is before the Seanad for our consideration. It is fraught with ambiguity and hidden dangers which are not immediately apparent. It sounds nice. I suspect that because it is pleasant sounding this is why it has got as far as it has got.
I do not propose to take up the time of the House in discussing the legal pitfalls of the wording of the amendment as I feel this has been most comprehensively dealt with by other speakers, notably Senator Mary Robinson who, in her eloquent and incisive speech, elaborated in great depth and detail the various legal pitfalls surrounding this particular wording. I would like it placed on the record that I concur with all that she has said in this area.
I would now like to turn towards the groups who have espoused this amendment in its present wording and the manipulative tactics which they have employed. I freely acknowledge that many of the people were and are motivated by genuine concern for the right to life of the unborn child. However, the spectre of some of the most reactionary groups in Irish society has been at the helm of this campaign. These include the Knights of St. Columbanus, the Responsible Society, Mná na hÉireann, the League of Decency, and the Irish Family League to name but a few. I was interested to see that one of the chief people supporting this amendment, I think attached to the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, has gone on record as being opposed to another group which is quietly and compassionately working in our society: I refer to the society connected with the sexual needs of the disabled. I feel that this points up the very sick nature of some of the mentalities associated with this campaign, that they would instantly and unthinkingly and uncaringly slam and condemn an organisation which has had the sensitivity and the courage and the awareness to recognise that disabled people have a sexuality and that they must be helped to realise it in a caring, sensitive and compassionate way. I say this as someone who is proud to have been given a nomination to this Seanad by the Multiple Sclerosis Association of Ireland under whose flag I stand in the Seanad.
Previously these organisations which I referred to were involved in what I would describe as a partially failed attempt to block access and information and facilities in the area of contraception. Indeed one might say that the triduum of contraception, divorce and abortion exerts a peculiar fascination over these ultramontane groups. With their unrivalled grasp of logic they have deduced that the one is inextricably linked up with and leads to the other. There is no shortage among them of volunteers to cast the first stone. It is fortunate for the woman taken in adultery that they did not form part of the crowd who were judging her. They are indeed judgmental and condemnatory and it is this aspect of the pro-amendment campaign which has so divided and polarised Irish society, particularly our young people. Those Senators who were watching the Late Late Show on last Saturday night will have seen very clearly and unequivocally the feeling of our young people in relation to this debate.
Many of the tactics employed by these people have been indefensible: for example, the screening of abortion procedures to impressionable and sensitive schoolchildren, many of whom because of our studied avoidance of sex education would not understand the full background which might lead a woman to have recourse to abortion and who would not even have grasped the basic elements and rudiments of human sexuality. I have actually come across a conversation being sagely conducted by nine-year olds on the topic of abortion. One says to the other "You can have it if you want it. You only have to go to England; you cannot have it here." It was rather like saying "Would you like a sweet or would you not like a sweet?" In their nine-year old way that is how they were beginning to view this. It was an option, you could take one or you could leave one, you could have it or you need not have it. To me there was something obscene about this. Here were these tender, innocent young children and without any means of avoiding the situation they were being propelled into knowledge of abortion which is tragic, sickening and unfortunate but which happens to be a fact of life in our world. I have come across primary schoolchildren in Waterford where I live coming home from school with pieces of paper inviting parents to attend a meeting on abortion. These children could read, they would hand it to their mother, this would become a topic of conversation. This campaign has done our young children and our young people a gross disservice and I resent it deeply.
Fortunately in this campaign we were spared a visit from Fr. Marx and his infamous bottle with its contents. But, of course, the Wilkies came instead. This is a very interesting performance, a sort of upmarket pro-life peep show. Dr. Wilkie and his wife decided that they knew it all, that they were here to preach to the innocent, unsuspecting Irish people about the virtues of their cause. I would like to quote, in support of my grave reservations about these people, from the Irish Medical Journal of April, 1983, Volume 76, No. 4. There is an article written by Dr. David Nowlan who is The Irish Times medical correspondent and in this article entitled “Second Opinion” with a sub-heading “Under Threat” he wrote:
Did nobody else find as disturbing as I did the presence in Ireland a few weeks ago of two Americans, ostensibly arguing against abortion, whose main objective seemed to be to undermine two of the most important institutions of our democratic state — the Oireachtas and the Supreme Court? You cannot, these foreigners were saying to my compatriots, trust the structures of your State if you are genuinely opposed to abortion — a singularly dangerous and remarkably subversive argument in a country where the vast majority of the population quite properly abhor abortion. The clear implication of their statements was that their knowledge of abortion was such that their recommendations would hold more validity than either our judiciary or our legislature. (This from a pair that did not even know exactly what are the structures of this nation — at least on the evidence of a radio interview.) The tone and content of their comments indicated their belief that they were in possession of the whole truth and that, therefore, none had any right to argue with them.
I find this kind of argumentation, on the basis of assertion, very difficult to bear. Interestingly enough, too, the visit of the Wilkies was a highly slick professional affair. At the conclusion of the lectures one could buy slides, pictures, videos and books on abortion. To me it smacked of commercialism, in addition to all the other things that were offensive about it.
This leads me to introduce my own sense of outrage as a Member of the Oireachtas at being portrayed as someone who could not be trusted to be responsible in legislation concerning this very important issue. It is disappointing to observe that some of my colleagues in both Houses of the Oireachtas bought this particular argument. It leads one to question their interpretation of the functions of this House, and another House, their own role as legislators and the function of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, I will remind Senators, is the organ of the State to which has been left the onus of decision-making in sensitive areas which have been dodged by successive governments lacking in political will to grasp nettles which may be a painful and stinging exercise.
I have made little public comment on this issue, feeling that whatever the motives of its originators, it had succeeded in fostering an extremely tawdry level of debate in this society which was already bedevilled by other very, very pressing issues. It is true to say that there are a great number of people out there who feel that this issue does not impinge on their lives in any way. I can understand how they would feel this way because they are confronting extremely pressing economic issues: unemployment, redundancy, and all that must mean to an individual family. It must be very difficult for them to feel that the debate on the amendment has any relevance to their lives. But those of us who feel very deeply about the fabric of this society, about its shape, make and direction, recognise the fact that this particular debate is of fundamental importance. It must be considered side by side and in tandem with all the other very pressing issues which we are forced to confront also.
I said I had not spoken publicly on this issue to date, but quite recently something prompted me to do so. I refer to the vilification of a leading and respected clergyman, Dean Victor Griffin, by a Member of another House. This prompted me to speak in his defence at an ecumenical meeting in Waterford. I issued an apology to Dean Victor Griffin for the unwarranted attack which had been made on him. I publicly deprecated it and stated that I wished to be dissociated from it as, I suspected, would the majority of my party colleagues. At the meeting, which was very well attended, this initiative was welcomed and I was thanked by, I would say, the majority of people there. So, feeling that it was significant and that it should receive a wider audience I issued a public statement in the matter. Subsequently I received several anonymous letters of a sectarian and racist content, couched in foul language, presumably from a member of the moral majority. I quote an example in order to illustrate the can of worms which is about to open on an unsuspecting Irish public. The letter goes as follows:
Dear Bul Bul (Ameer),
Do not apologise to Rev. Griffin and do not dare to speak for anyone except self.
He occupies a stolen Cathedral and has insulted many Irishmen.
Forsooth, my, dear the shit doth hit the fan. F---you and Griffin.
Further comment, fellow-Senators, is superfluous but it points up the degrading and disgusting level which this situation has given rise to and which is a cause for grave concern. I suspect among those people who with genuine concern advanced this proposition in the first place. I am sure that even they would blush on hearing the contents of that letter.
Now I feel that much hinges around the interpretation and the definitions which will be given to the wording in the proposed amendment which is before the House for consideration. I imagine that this will be gone into in great depth on Committee Stage, if indeed this Bill reaches Committee Stage in this House. Some of the fears which I share are that in the area of family planning we are facing a potentially threatening situation. Our family planning legislation is an obstacle course for many women, particularly for those who live in the rural areas. It has been described as an Irish solution to an Irish problem and I am very much afraid that what we are going to do in relation to this amendment will be yet another Irish solution to an Irish problem. I am heartened by the fact that the present Minister has recently announced that he plans to introduce much needed reform in this area. To my mind there is overwhelming evidence to support the proposition that those groups pressing and proposing an amendment are not solely interested in placing a statement of principle in the Constitution. The very fact that they have succeeded in having their case come this far will give them a renewed vigour and impetus.
Because of the ambiguity surrounding the term "unborn" and its lack of definition, I would point out at this stage that it is not only an unknown legal concept, it is also an unknown medical or scientific concept. The way is paved for moves to render illegal certain accepted methods of contraception which are currently available to Irish women. The pro-amendment groups have been specific in that they regard life as starting from the moment of fertilisation. This is so despite the fact that Catholic practice has never treated fertilised ova lost before implantation as requiring church rites either baptism or burial. If however, it is interpreted that this category should be included in the phrase the "unborn", then the amendment could be used to prevent the making available of IUD, low does oral contraceptives and the morning-after pill. The legal position of the IUD has never been clear. It appears that their importation is illegal, yet to date their insertion has never been questioned — yet another anomaly and ambiguity and an area of doubt in our Irish legislation which pertains to this particular issue.
If the amendment passes, the use of the IUD, the low does oral contraceptive and the morning-after pill would most probably be outlawed. This would put Ireland in a position unique in the world in relation to contraception. I may be accused of scaremongering or of raising a red herring but I would refer Senators to an article in The Guardian of Monday, March 21 1983, which details an investigation being carried out by Sir Thomas Hetherington, the DPP, following allegations by Life, an anti-abortion organisation in Britain. I will quote from that article:
The Director of Public Prosecutions will decide this week whether to prosecute a pregnancy advisory service for supplying the morning-after contraceptive pill. His decision could affect not only the lives of the thousands of women who will take the pill this year to ensure that they do not get pregnant, but also the 250,000 women who are fitted with IUDs. Hundreds more will attempt to have test tube babies, and much of the country's research into infertility and genetic disorders.
Life which is an organisation similar to PLAC argues that a woman who takes the morning-after pill is actually having an abortion because it prevents the fertilised egg from implanting in the lining of the womb. Interestingly enough in today's Irish Independent, on page 22 we have the finding of the British Attorney General in this particular area and because it is so recent I would like to put it in full on to the record of this House. The reason for that is I feel it is a judgment which will have a bearing on the debate and indeed on the situation in which we find ourselves. It states:
Use of the "morning-after" pill is not the same as causing a miscarriage and is not criminal under the Offences Against the Person Act. Britain's Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers, announced today.
His ruling came the day after the Family Planning Association mounted a campaign for the pill to be available through the National Health Service to all women — not only where there is emergency, such as unprotected intercourse, rape and failure of the mechanical methods of contraception.
The anti-abortion group Life, has claimed, however, that "post-coital contraception" contravenes the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
But Sir Michael said in a Commons written reply yesterday: "Such pills are intended to be taken by women following unprotected intercourse to inhibit implantation in the womb of any fertilised ovum.
The sole question for resolution therefore is whether the prevention of implantation constitutes the procuring of a miscarriage within the meaning of sections 58 or 59 of the Act. The principles relating to interpretation of statutes require that the words of a statute be given the meaning which they bore at time the statute was passed. Further, since the words were used in a general statute, they are prima facie presumed to be used in their popular, ordinary or natural sense. In this context it is important to bear in mind that a failure to implant is something which may occur in the manner described above or quite spontaneously. Indeed in a significant proportion of cases the fertilised ovum is lost either prior to implantation or at the next menstruation. It is clear that, used in its ordinary sense the word “miscarriage” is not apt to describe a failure to implant whether it is spontaneous or not. Likewise, the phrase “procure a miscarriage” cannot be construed to include prevention of implantation. Whatever the state of medical knowledge in the nineteenth century the ordinary use of the word “miscarriage” related to interference at a stage of pre-natal development later than implantation. In the light of the above I have come to the conclusion that this form of post-coital treatment does not constitute a criminal offence within either sections 58 or 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act, 1861. No proceedings are to be instituted.
That is the end of the statement in the Commons made by the British Attorney General. The report just goes on to conclude by saying:
Anti-abortion groups who recently reported two clinics in Sheffield and Birmingham to the police for prescribing the morning-after pill, challenged the Attorney General to state on what grounds the method was legal. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said "the morning after pill was an abortive agent. It would seek counsel's opinion in the issue".
So, for them, the matter is not resolved. If this amendment is passed we are seriously putting in jeopardy the health and well being of our women of child bearing years. The zealots who have assidiously promoted this campaign will hardly fold their tents and steal away silently into the night, though one would wish that this would be the case. They will gain in confidence and will most likely launch attacks against other matters which in their opinion are morally dubious.
The passing of this amendment could also interfere even further with access to safe, efficient contraception, thus driving more and more women on to the abortion trail. One should bear in mind that this is a very real possibility of the outcome of this entire campaign. The narrow concern of the pro-amendment people does not encompass these women who, in fear, shame and desperation make the very difficult and the very painful decision to seek abortion in England and elsewhere.
Family doctors of my acquaintance have told me of a curious side effect to this prolonged public debate. They tell of women who have had abortions coming to them in a state of heightened anguish and guilt because of the judgmental attitudes and self-righteous posturing on the part of many who have contributed to this debate. I dare say that priests, confessors and social workers could tell the same story if they were asked. Who will take away the burden of guilt from these women? Who will ease their pain? Who will help them to resolve the conflict situation which confronts them? Not the pro-amendment people who have no previous track record in areas of social concern. These women are the flotsam and jetsam of this debate and they will be left to the tender mercy of their own consciences. Occasional professionals and, one would hope, more clergy, may choose to see that they get the compassion and concern which is their due.
The Attorney General has seen fit to draw attention to the difficulty arising from the wording intended to protect the right to life of the mother as well as the life of the unborn child. The wording before us for consideration would in the opinion of the Attorney General probably be interpreted by the courts to exclude operations to save the life of the mother that are now carried out in all our hospitals in accordance with the medical ethics and theology of all our churches. The Taoiseach said:
The possibility, even probability, that this would be the outcome of this wording and that the lives of mothers who are at present saved in cases of ectopic pregnancies or cancer of the womb would thus be endangered was conclusive.
As far as he and the Government were concerned this led them to repudiate this wording and to come forward with a wording which would avoid these pitfalls and would, in addition, have the benefit of not being sectarian and divisive. By doing this they were conscious of the fact that they ran a grave political risk but they had the integrity, the principle, the courage and determination to face this risk fairly and squarely and to bring forward for consideration a form of wording which avoided all those pitfalls.
The risk factor inherent in the wording has been swept to one side by the pro-amendment people. The question of choosing between mother and child never arises they assert, but this is not so. I will cite one example to Senators for their consideration of where there is a very delicate choice that must be made. Every day in the major medical centres in this country caesarean sections are carried out on mothers who are 28 to 30 weeks pregnant. Perhaps the most common indication for this is severe toxaemia which has not responded to conservative medical management.
The obstetrician is faced with an obligation to prevent the mother from having a stroke while at the same time giving the foetus the best opportunity for survival. In this situation the common practice is to try to carry the mother through to this stage of pregnancy, that is 28 to 30 weeks, when the foetus would be viable outside the womb. This brings about an end to mother's toxaemia but it is the beginning of a desperate fight for survival on the part of the neo-nates.
I would at this point like to compliment county obstetricians who refer such patients, the neo-nates, to centres where they will have comprehensive care. Nowadays, a majority of these neo-nates survive after prolonged intensive care. However, a significant number will have to cope with the consequences of failure of management, despite the best efforts of the medical team involved. This in no way is meant to imply criticism of neonatal care which has been brought to a fine art by the dedicated and caring work of our Irish neo-natalogists. The type of handicap resulting from such failure of management, as I have alluded to, includes cerebal palsy, congenital deafness, blindness, residual lung damage and infection to which these tender, precious neo-nates are highly susceptible. On the other hand, if the pregnancy was allowed to proceed to 34 weeks the mother might have a stroke and the infant's chances of intact survival would be so much better at this particular stage of gestation but the mother would have to bear the handicap. Such handicap on the part of the mother would include stroke, bringing in its wake paralysis, perhaps blindness, deafness, intellectual impairment and, of course, kidney damage which would lead to incontinence.
The thrust of my argument in bringing this detailed example to the attention of the House is that this conflicts with the wording of the amendment in as far as it refers to the equal right to life of mother and child. The pro-amendment people would say that "due regard" covers this situation, but to me it seems like a very grey area indeed and one that clearly shows up the defects in the wording of the amendment before us.
I would like to know who will arbitrate between the equal right of the child versus that of the mother in this situation. At present there is a grace and favour arbitrator in the person of the obstetrician. If this amendment is incorporated into our Constitution, will each foetus caught up in such a situation have to be made a ward of court? We are on very thin ice indeed when an attempt is made, however well-meaning, to incorporate an ill-defined, nice-sounding amendment into our Constitution.
I now turn to the area of ecumenism. This is an area and a movement which has been threatened——