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Seanad Éireann debate -
Monday, 13 Mar 1995

Vol. 142 No. 7

Regulation of Information (Services Outside the State for Termination of Pregnancies) Bill, 1995: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to address the House this evening on this important legislation and I welcome the Minister on his first visit to the Seanad Chamber. I compliment him on having introduced this Bill so early in his career as Minister for Health.

I realise — and he recognises and has stated publicly — that this is a minimalist Bill. I compliment him on the politically shrewd manner in which he has presented it and on the way he has acquitted himself since the Bill was published to ensure the public at large fully understand the nature and the content of the Bill.

Basically, this Bill gives effect to what the people decided in one of three referenda in 1992 — information relating to abortion services available outside the State. Frankly, this is an issue which I would personally prefer not to have to contemplate, especially as the mother of two children, but the world as it is, an imperfect place where many things happen which we deplore, we have to confront it. It is a responsibility of the Government to introduce this Bill at this time.

Neither the law nor the Constitution can completely rule human behaviour. Irish women have been going to England for abortions for a long time, and that is a widely accepted and, no matter what we do, many more will take the same road. Not one of us can ever really claim to know why even in any single case. In most cases there are a wide variety of reasons. Many find they cannot go through with the pregnancy because the pregnancy was the result of abuse or rape. In other instances, they are not supported by the father of the child and they feel they have no choice but to terminate the pregnancy. In other cases there is a belief that the society in which the mother lives will not accept her and her child and, in fact, will snub and shun her as a single parent. In many instances we will find that greatest offenders are those who most offend within the local communities. There is also the fear that at some time in the future they will be unable to support the child financially; this is a major concern. That, plus many other personal or family reasons eventually force women to take the boat or the plane to England. It is extremely unfortunate that they feel obliged to do that.

Anyone who has had a miscarriage recognises the trauma, loss and terrible stress a woman suffers where a pregnancy terminates naturally. The woman has no input, it just happens but in the case of an abortion she has to make a decision and any woman who has ever been pregnant knows that making that decision can be very traumatic. I find it incredible that any woman would go to England in that state of mind. I do not think any male can honestly stand up and say they understand a situation like that. I compliment the Minister for doing his best to make the situation that little bit easier for women who find themselves in those circumstances.

I welcome in particular the fact that counselling will be compulsory. This can sometimes help women to change their minds. The Bill requires counselling to be given with information. In this way we hope to reduce the number of cases where women choose abortion, and who, I wonder, could disagree with that.

I was in my office listening to Senator Lydon and I was compelled to come here because I found it extremely offensive to hear a fellow Member of the Oireachtas regurgitate this fundamentalist propaganda and put it on the record. It was an abuse of the Chamber.

This is a democracy, Senator.

The Government is to treble the amount of funding available to counselling agencies. We hope that this will help to reduce further the incidence of abortion. We can all help by fostering a less judgmental and a more compassionate attitude to what we call crisis pregnancies, by helping to eradicate some of the evils that cause them and reducing a lot of the hypocrisy that surrounds the pronouncements made by many people in relation to crisis pregnancies.

We are all appalled by the seeming flood of cases of abuse of young girls. I remember with horror a young girl who died in childbirth in a grotto in Granard just ten or 11 years ago. How many more girls, and older women, are abused? Who knows their suffering? How can we presume to judge their reactions or to pronounce on the decisions they make? As long as these things happen women will have to make decisions from which many of us would recoil, but these decisions will be made. We will solve nothing by piously pontificating as one public figure has done recently — and, indeed, as Senator Lydon has done again here this evening — about Holocausts and Nazis. To compare a pregnant women leaving Ireland to go to England for an abortion with a Nazi is downright hypocritical and totally insincere and humiliating. The people who make those pronouncements are shameful. I condemn everybody who would compare an unfortunate girl or woman going to England to undergo an abortion to that because the crisis they are in, the difficulties they experiencing are inexpressible.

We will solve nothing by ignoring reality and by forcing women to invent excuses for going elsewhere. If a woman decides to have an abortion despite all the counselling and support she can get, surely she should at least have access to information. Women have died from backstreet abortions, and they still do. Indeed, we are all aware of people who have lost their lives in backstreet abortions both in this country and outside it. This compounds the evil. Can we really conspire in that by refusing information? I say no, the Minister says no and this Government says no.

I compliment the Minister and the Government for accepting their responsibilities and introducing this Bill to provide basic information to women about what is available. Does anybody here say it is preferable for these women to go to England without an address or telephone number and end up in a backstreet and maybe lose their lives. That should not be the case.

I would like to share my time with Senator Byrne if that is agreeable.

An Leas-Cathaoirleach

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister. His reputation has preceded him. He has been a hardworking man down the years and he is respected by Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas.

This is a sensitive and delicate Bill, no matter what Minister or Government introduced it but, as a former Member Paudge Brennan, said in his farewell speech, "There is never a wrong time to do the right thing".

I believe that all Members are trying to do the right thing about this Bill. Before Senator Taylor-Quinn leaves the House, I wish to make a comment. I think Senator Lydon's contribution was made with the conscientious objective of letting us know where he sees this legislation going. He should not be denigrated and I will not denigrate Senator Taylor-Quinn's short contribution either.

I respect the views which have been articulated by many professional people in this House and I, in turn, would expect them to respect my view. My strong Catholic upbringing has had a major influence on me and how I think on this issue. I am totally opposed to it as one might guess.

This Bill will possibly be tested in the Supreme Court because it could be in conflict with the Constitution. It would be wise to test it in the Supreme Court rather than when some major difficulty is at hand — some young girl's life at risk — when it would be under pressure of public opinion.

As a person who comes from the marketing world, I do not give too much credence to the media, which, as you all know, has vested interests. Two-thirds of the media is owned and controlled by well known members of the Fine Gael Party, while another major part of the media has had a long tradition with another faith outside the Roman Catholic Church. The Irish Press, which was supposed to be the voice of the people, went wrong trying to follow the small niche market in Dublin and we see where they have ended up today.

As regards the referendum in 1992, a lot of people were hoodwinked with the problem of the X case. I have no doubt about the reply that the Irish people would give today if this came before them in a referendum. The only part of this country which is sound and which, in my opinion, is the most important part, is the Irish people themselves who have their feet on the ground. They do not have a foreign agenda to bring in a culture from another country, nor do they want to promote culture from the worst parts of the world in relation to morals. I am not going to preach morals to anyone here because everyone has their own moral standards. However, what has happened since 1961, when television came into this country, has been the ruination and downfall of our standards. To compound it all, we have video nasties.

The outrageous lack of respect for life, property and everything that is good in life is scandalous. I sympathise with the Government Ministers who are in charge of various Departments, because we have had a family system over the years that is the envy of the world. The family is the centrepiece of the community, whether it is down the country, in Dublin, in the GAA or other sports clubs, or in family business. The family is the sound foundation which we all represent.

We have all benefited from a sound family upbringing, as it was known in the 1950s and early 1960s. When we were attending the national school in our own parishes years ago, how many of us thought that we would one day have the great honour of sitting in Seanad Éireann discussing the future of coming generations? Very few of us could have envisaged the great honour that has been bestowed on us, but when such an honour is bestowed it brings with it a responsibility that goes over and above the responsibility to a political party.

There are people on the Government side of the House this evening who hold the same views as myself, but they are following their party whip against their consciences. I am looking over at one or two good friends of mine. This legislative proposal may be the right thing or the wrong thing to do, but I have a strong gut feeling that the Irish people do not want it. I will say no more because we have heard many eminent speakers discussing it who know the supposed rights and wrongs. Over the past four or five months we have seen these eminent people giving different, individual interpretations and opinions.

As elected representatives of the people — most of us elected by the professional electorate — we are carrying their views into this Chamber. We represent them and they, in turn, are the representatives of the people on the ground. Many of us are also representatives of local authorities. I would ask those who will vote later on to bear this in mind because during 13 years in the Seanad, while I have seen people come, I have seen many go because their views were not representative of the people they were elected to represent.

The old order changeth.

You know the people I am talking about, and you are one of the good people I was referring to, Senator. If the Minister is not making information available on radio or television, is he making it available on video?

On tape.

Video or CD is the easiest format on which to provide information nowadays, so I want to see all that type of information included in the Bill. The old one liner years ago said: "It will be early to bed and early to rise 'cause you will——

Keeps a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

——draw no one if you don't advertise". We are now allowing this process to be advertised and that will be the death knell to encouraging activities that we should not be giving the arm of the law to. I rest my case and call on Senator Byrne to conclude this part of our contribution.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Noonan, who has a difficult task, being a family man himself. I have my misgivings about the Bill. It is a problem that has faced many generations and successive Governments. In my humble opinion, both Church and State have failed to face this very human problem which we have swept under the carpet for too long.

The fear of any young girl today is no different to what it was 30 or 40 years ago: fear of their parents, of the neighbours and the Church, though maybe in a different order. That fear brought about a situation where thousands of young girls left this country for England and other countries to have an abortion and ended up very sad people. It is a world problem, which, as one Labour Senator said, has been there since the beginning of time. Of course it has, but we are supposed to be living in a civilised generation, being more modern in outlook on every walk of life, yet we have failed on this one.

The "valley of the squinting windows"— whether it is in a country village or a city — gossip, pressure and fear drove most girls out. Fear is still at it, though young people today are more independent and a bit more informed than the generation or two before them were. That fear of parents, Church and neighbours drove many young people away. Some of them never came back and some died while having illegal abortions. I am not a doctor and do not have any medical training, but I believe that both the Church and the State under successive Governments have failed miserably to face up to this human problem.

I am pleased that money is to be provided in this Bill for confidential advice and counselling. I compliment the voluntary organisations, the lay people and the people involved in the various churches that have provided valuable confidential information and counselling, for example, through Cura and Life. The health boards are also doing a limited amount. I doubt if this Bill is passed whether it will face the problem, reduce the number of abortions, make the problem go away or make people more informed. I think the Bill is vague and that is why people are worried about it.

God protect us from all those legal eagles that we have advising Ministers, two of them can hardly agree on any issue today, never mind a sacred issue like human life. This issue about when life begins and ends, at what stage an abortion is murder, has been debated throughout the world. They say doctors differ and patients die. Legal people differ too and we had an example of that in the last few months in both Houses of the Oireachtas. It is not an easy problem to sort out.

I hope this comparison I make will not be taken out of context. In this State a vast amount of money has been spent in the last 50 years in trying to remove TB and brucellosis from our livestock. I heard on the radio that a farmer must report any abortions in his or her livestock herd to the local Department. If the State spent a small proportion of the money that was spent on the TB eradication programme over the years in counselling and advising our young people, maybe this problem would not be as great as it is. Because we were such great Catholics in this country we said that the problem was not there at all; but it was there. Through fear of gossip on the part of the girls concerned, it was hidden; but it is still there. We all should be ashamed, successive Governments and all the churches should be ashamed that they did not make a greater effort to help those unfortunate girls, who can come from any walk of life. We all have families and one never knows when that problem might have to be faced.

The Bill is weak. The question of whether information is referral or not is the worry in peoples' mind. It is vague and can be open to abuse by various people. I will be voting against it. I have nothing to say to the Minister other than that I know he has a difficult job. If the Bill is passed, he should put more funds into confidential advice centres in every village, town and city through the health boards, and he should help the voluntary organisations, whether they be Church or lay people, in order to remove this problem because it is something that has been there for a long time.

Limerick East): I thank all the Senators who contributed today to a very full, frank, calm debate. Thank God the Seanad is a less passionate place than the other House and certainly much less passionate than the debate which went on outside.

This was a very difficult Bill to draft because, as Senators will appreciate, one was trying to draft a Bill which treads a path between competing fundamental rights. Article 40.3.3º of the Constitution gives a right to life to the unborn child and an equal right to life to the mother. That is something we all approve of, but of course a difficulty arises if the two absolute rights come into conflict. Which right should take precedence? We saw what happened in the course of the X case and the emotion that was generated when there was a straight conflict of rights, insofar as the Supreme Court was concerned, between the rights of Miss X and the rights of her unborn baby.

The issues of travel and information came up at that time and the people in their wisdom, by way of referendum in 1992, decided that the right to life of the unborn child and the equal right to life of the mother could not be vindicated in a manner which transgressed a citizen's freedom to information or freedom to travel. A conditionality was introduced in 1992 to the fundamental rights which were enshrined in the Constitution in 1983. It is interesting to note that the information amendment was a subsection to Article 40.3.3º. It says that

This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another State.

Since it was the subsection to the section which gave the right to life to an unborn child, it was quite clear that the services referred to in another State were services to terminate a pregnancy. That is the position, and the ground is fairly narrow; but even though the amendment was passed, it did not take away the right to life of the unborn child or the right to life of the mother.

I do not intend replying to every individual point that was raised here in my reply now; those points can be dealt with in detail on Committee Stage. But there is a school of thought that came through the debate here and outside the House that there is something peculiar about information which is non-directive away from abortion, that it cannot be directive towards abortion. People are arguing that it should be neutral between the pro-abortion position and the anti-abortion position. In other words, a doctor could be allowed to encourage somebody to go for termination as strongly as he could be allowed to go to Cura, for example. The problem with that line of argument is that it forgets that the right to life of the unborn child is still there in Article 40.3.3º. This is merely a qualification, so it is not possible under the Constitution to have a situation where you are neutral in counselling, because the right of the child is there and the right of the child must be protected.

The same argument applies to those who say that this is some kind of intrusion in the doctor-patient relationship when a doctor is advising the mother. She might be ill or her life might be at risk even, as in the circumstances of the X case. Again there are limitations on what the doctor may do, because in dealing with a pregnant woman he is dealing with a woman who has very strong rights, but he is also dealing with an unborn child who has rights as well. He cannot favour one unduly over the other, even in the X case circumstances. It is a very narrow line.

The fact that the 1983 amendment, giving the right to life of both mother and child explicitly in the Constitution, is qualified in 1992 by the freedom to travel and the freedom to information, those rights are not taken away or cancelled by the 1992 referendum. That is why it is so difficult to draft and that is why it is so difficult for amendments to be drafted for this also.

Senator Norris raised one point which I wish to deal with. That is the question of who is caught by the Act. The best way to explain it is that when the people voted in 1992 they voted that there would be a specific right to information in the Constitution and they also voted that the Houses of the Oireachtas would delimit or restrict the application of that particular right. The Bill does this by defining what a person is under the Act and it is only that person defined in the definition section who is restricted. That person is a person who engages in or holds himself or herself or itself out as engaging in the activity of giving information, advice or counselling to individual members of the public in relation to pregnancy.

Unless people are self instituted as advisers, either as medical doctors or as counsellors in a clinic, they do not come under the provisions of the Bill. Therefore, a mother, as in the X case which was mentioned by Senator Norris, would be absolutely free and unrestricted to counsel and advise her daughter and make arrangements for her because she does not come under the Bill. The same would apply to a sister, a friend, a husband, a boy friend or any other relationship. The Bill applies to persons defined by it. They must in some way be self instituted as advisers to women who are pregnant. Information is closely defined in the Bill and I am sure Senators will look at this.

A number of political points have been made and I will not dwell unduly on them. There is no particular mystery about the timing of the Bill. The programme A Government of Renewal said this would be done as soon as possible. Everybody knows I was given a file and a draft Bill, which was at an advanced stage of readiness. Any time I was asked about it I said I was working on it. That people did not believe I was working on it or thought I would dodge it and not introduce it is not my fault.

More explicitly, Deputy Harney asked the Taoiseach in the Dáil about a fortnight before the Bill was published — I think it was on 7 February — when it would be introduced. He left her in no doubt that its publication was imminent. There were only a handful of Deputies in the House that morning and the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Health was not there. To be quite frank, Fianna Fáil was not marking the issue that morning because it was as clear as crystal from the Taoiseach's reply to that it would be introduced in the next ten days or two weeks. Senators can check the record of this in the Official Report.

Not only was the Bill accompanied by an explanatory memorandum but by a detailed explanatory leaflet. Such a leaflet is not the product of a Minister in a hurry who is trying to steal something out under cover of the Framework Document. This was planned by us to be published and it was a coincidence that it arrived at the same Cabinet meeting as did the Framework Document. Rather than bringing it forward I put it back so that it would not coincide with the publication of Framework Document on the same day.

I had discussions with Deputy Harney and Deputy Bertie Ahern. I read in a newspaper on Sunday that Deputy Ahern said he thought we were having a meeting to discuss the North. This may be his memory of it, but if he checks the letter I sent him that morning he will see that the first line said the publication of the abortion information Bill was imminent and that I wanted to discuss it with him. I am simply saying that in that interview he was mixed up about the sequence of events. My position is quite clear and straightforward on this.

The other political point to which I would like to reply is the Fianna Fáil position on the Bill. Fianna Fáil was in Government with the Progressive Democrats when the referendum was put in place. Specific commitments were given at that time, which I outlined on Second Stage. The heads of a Bill were produced and this Bill is based on the same heads which were agreed at that stage.

During the Fianna Fáil Labour Government a great deal of work was done by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Howlin, and a draft Bill was produced. Many people have forgotten that my immediate predecessor as Minister for Health was not Deputy Howlin but Deputy Woods. Labour, as Senators will recall, walked out of Government for reasons we all know and Deputy Woods was appointed Minister for Health and had full access to the file, including the draft Bill, the legal advice from the previous Attorney General and the memorandum to the Government in 1992 when the heads of the Bill were arranged. There is no secret about these things so Fianna Fáil should not point the finger at me and say I am putting it in the wrong position.

When I was negotiating the part of the present programme for Government dealing with this issue, I was given a draft of the Bill. The Labour Party told me it did the same with Fianna Fáil. The part of the programme for Government dealing with this was exactly the same as that in the programme for Government agreed by Fianna Fáil and Labour because I did not want any divergence but was looking for consensus. It was Fianna Fáil's draft which went into paragraph 29 of the present programme for Government, where the commitment is given. The finger should not be pointed at me and it should not be said that I am misconstruing the position.

Senator O'Kennedy's intervention was the only one in either House which was personal and cast aspersions on my truthfulness and accuracy. This simply is not the case. He played on the fact that I said Fianna Fáil agreed to this. I will be more precise and say that the Fianna Fáil leader and negotiators agreed to it and this was part of the full agreement which was signed by the then Tánaiste, Deputy Spring, and Deputy Ahern, the leader of Fianna Fáil. The agreement broke down late on a Sunday night and the position changed by the following morning. Before it broke down, the full proposed programme for Government had not only been agreed but signed. It included a commitment to a Bill such as this. I know it was not referred to the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party but I do not believe that Senator O'Kennedy on his own would have stopped the formation of a Government on the basis of a paragraph in the proposed programme for Government.

On the question of constitutionality, referring the Bill to the Supreme Court is entirely a matter for the President under Article 26 of the Constitution. I have received assurances from the Attorney General that the Bill is entirely in accordance with the Constitution. I would not have introduced a Bill unless it was constitutional and no Minister would do so. When the case was argued very forcibly on Committee Stage in the Dáil, I went back to the Attorney General between Committee and Report Stages and again obtained assurances. The Attorney General had the advice of very eminent senior counsel which supported the view. I am presenting the Bill to the Seanad as being constitutional.

There are a number of points I want to take up on Committee Stage. I will deal with one or two points now. Senator Henry in a very interesting contribution raised a number of issues which go beyond the immediate scope of the Bill and I will find a way of responding to them later. On the question of a GMS doctor who has a conscientious objection and who cannot counsel a woman who approaches him, there are provisions in medical ethics that such a woman would go to another GMS doctor without incurring a charge. To make doubly sure of this, I will contact the health boards to make sure there is not a double charge and that a system is in place.

Senator Lydon said I am introducing the freedom to give names and addresses to pregnant women but I am not. There is nothing in the Bill about names, addresses and telephone numbers. That freedom was given by the people in 1992. I could have inserted a prohibition — this would have met Senator Lydon's point — on the provision of names, addresses and telephone numbers but I am advised by the Attorney General that this would be clearly unconstitutional because such provision is precisely for what the people voted. That advice is absolutely supported by the advice of the previous Attorney General, Mr. Harry Whelehan, who, when this point was raised in the Supreme Court, advised the court that he was not entering a defence to raising an injunction on the Well Woman clinic on the provision of names and addresses because, in effect, circumstances had changed since the referendum and what was illegal before it was no longer illegal after it. The exact issue was names and addresses.

The reference to bell, book and candle seems to have upset Senator O'Kennedy. That was not intended as a general criticism of the hierarchy. The hierarchy are absolutely right to speak out on an issue like this. The Church is a teaching church, it not only has a right but an obligation to teach the moral law. I have said this already. The statement made by the hierarchy in Maynooth last week was prudent, timely and compassionate and I have no problem with it. The hierarchy was not only within its rights but was obligated to do so.

The moral law has not changed from 1983 to 1992 and 1995. The Church is absolutely consistent in preaching the moral law before and after the referendum of 1992. What has changed is the constitutional position. Abortion is not any more moral now than it was in 1991. Freedom to obtain information on abortion has changed because the Constitution has changed. Senator McGennis said she could recite all the answers to the catechism she learned at school and she would be able to advise Senator O'Kennedy better than I could.

The ceremony of excommunication, those Senators who got a good training will recall, involved ringing the bell, closing the book and blowing out the candle. It was a reference to a statement about excommunication. It was not a reference to the general statement of the hierarchy.

I hope I have answered the primary points raised. I have noted many points which I am sure will come up again on Committee Stage and I can deal with them then.

If Senators want to complete the Bill, we will but that is entirely up to the House.

Question put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 29; Níl, 17.

  • Belton, Louis J.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Calnan, Michael.
  • Cashin, Bill.
  • Cotter, Bill.
  • D'Arcy, Michael.
  • Dardis, John.
  • Doyle, Joe.
  • Enright, Thomas W.
  • Farrelly, John V.
  • Gallagher, Ann.
  • Henry, Mary.
  • Honan, Cathy.
  • Howard, Michael.
  • Kelly, Mary.
  • McDonagh, Jarlath.
  • Magner, Pat.
  • Maloney, Seán.
  • Manning, Maurice.
  • Naughten, Liam.
  • Norris, David.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • O'Toole, Joe.
  • Reynolds, Gerry.
  • Ross, Shane P.N.
  • Sherlock, Joe.
  • Taylor-Quinn, Madeleine.
  • Townsend, Jim.
  • Wall, Jack.


  • Bohan, Eddie.
  • Byrne, Seán.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Daly, Brendan.
  • Fahey, Frank.
  • Farrell, Willie.
  • Finneran, Michael.
  • Fitzgerald, Tom.
  • Kiely, Rory.
  • Lydon, Don.
  • Mulcahey, Michael.
  • O'Brien, Francis.
  • O'Kennedy, Michael.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Wright, G.V.
  • Wright, G.V.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Burke and Magner; Níl, Senators Fitzgerald and Finneran.
Question declared carried.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

There was an understanding that we would, if time allowed, take Committee Stage this evening. However, I have been informed by the main Opposition party that it does not agree to this. I now propose to adjourn until 10.30 a.m. tomorrow and to take Committee Stage then.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 14 March 1995.
The Seanad adjourned at 9.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 14 March 1995.