That Seanad Éireann, noting the well documented case to provide proper support structures to assist women experiencing pregnancy crisis, calls for a comprehensive and compassionate approach to the issue including the immediate implementation of such support structures as proposed in the Care of Persons Board Bill, 2001, presented by Deputy Gay Mitchell.
The proposal to provide a proper support structure to assist women in crisis pregnancies was made by Fine Gael following its input to the all-party Oireachtas committee on the Constitution. Deputy Gay Mitchell's Bill provides for a legal basis for such support. The Government's proposal, contained in the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2001, published yesterday, contains three strands. My party has made it clear that the first strand, covering constitutional and legal aspects, will be discussed thoroughly by its parliamentary party and that legal advice will be taken to enable it scrutinise in detail the legislation presented to the Houses. Deputy Mitchell's Bill addresses issues raised in the second strand while the third strand deals with co-operation between Departments, health boards, non-governmental organisations and women's groups, especially those dealing with education and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. Deputy Mitchell's Bill does not exclude the third strand, rather it would be part of a more comprehensive approach to dealing with the reduction of the abortion rate by helping women in crisis pregnancies and their families.
The Government's proposed amendment to the motion refers to endorsing "the establishment by the Minister for Health and Children of a Crisis Pregnancy Agency under the provisions of the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1961". The agency will be allocated a budget of €6.5 million, which approximates to what my party proposes. However, the Minister should accept the need to establish the agency on a statutory basis to ensure that adequate support is provided to women in crisis pregnancies and their children. The purpose of Deputy Mitchell's Bill is to provide for this. It is not too much to ask. The decision by my party not to call a vote on this aspect indicates our wish for the Government to accept our proposals.
The outcry from many agencies and people indicates the need to provide State support to women in crisis pregnancies. It is not sufficient that voluntary bodies should be expected to do everything. While they do excellent work they are under-resourced and are over-stretched. Senator Keogh will speak about the need for funding for such bodies, much of whose work is unacknowledged. In the context of the all-party Oireachtas committee on the Constitution, my party recommended that there be such State support.
We do not have accurate figures on the numbers of women who seek abortion outside the State but it is clear that a significant number do so. The all-party Oireachtas committee on the Constitution indicated that according to national statistics from England and Wales, in 1971, 578 women normally resident in this country had abortions while in 1999 this had increased to 6,226. The figures may be even higher and they are not surprising given the concerns women have cited. These have been well documented in the book,Women in Crisis Pregnancy, by Evelyn Mahon, whom I knew when she was a researcher in the University of Limerick, Catherine Connell and Lucy Dillon. They are now part of a team at Trinity College, Dublin. The book was published in 1998 and is essential reading. It outlines the results of tremendous qualitative research and will help people to understand and support the need for proper structures to help those involved. There can be no doubt in any woman's mind that if these were put in place and properly organised and funded there would be a substantial reduction in the numbers of women having abortions.
The book outlines the practical reasons women had abortions. They were not only socio-economic, although some related to career and job concerns. The stigma of lone parenthood, which sometimes does not get the attention it deserves, stood out. Other concerns included the needs of the child, inability to cope, being too young and already having a child. Some women referred to "my body, my right" while others referred to the lack of education and training, the fact that they never wanted a child, the stigma attaching to parents or that they were too old to have a child. One third of those surveyed referred to the stigma of having a child, inability to cope or being financially unready. These are the stark concerns given by respondents to very open and specific interviews.
The bottom line is that women may choose abortion because they find themselves in a crisis or feel helpless without support. In many cases they feel they may have nowhere to turn, which is an outrageous reflection on a country that claims to be so family friendly. That aspect can be debated on another occasion but I do not see much sign of a family friendly approach when single parents contact me on the basis that they want to keep their children and ensure their education only to find they are ineligible for grants. There always appears to be stop-gaps, as is also the case in terms of medical help. It is no wonder they feel so threatened.
The all-party Oireachtas committee on the Constitution agreed on three definite aspects to this issue. The first was the large number of crisis pregnancies which result in recourse to abortion facilities in Great Britain. The second was an urgent need to take measures to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies and the third was the need to ensure that women in crisis pregnancies must be offered a real and positive alternative to abortion to help ensure a reduction in the rate of abortion.
Deputy Gay Mitchell's Private Member's Bill is thoughtful and proactive. It needs to be taken on board by the Government if the Government parties are serious about support for women in crisis pregnancies and about reducing the number of abortions taking place abroad. The care of persons board is stressed so much because of its autonomy, because it will report to the Oireachtas and because it has a strong statutory base. A three-year term of office is specified. There will be 12 members appointed by the Minister for Health and Children, subject to the approval of the Dáil, from the membership of which the Minister will appoint a chairman. The chairman shall, at least annually and when required by the Oireachtas committee appointed by both Houses for the purpose, appear before that committee and account for the discharge of the board's responsibilities. There is accountability.
The role of the board is to take all reasonable steps to ensure that any expectant mother shall receive every necessary support. That help may take the form of advice, finance, accommodation and health care, all of which help will be available during crisis pregnancy. It should be there to support, encourage and facilitate any expectant mother to bring her pregnancy to full term. That is not asking too much. The assurance should also be provided that this help will be available not only up to the birth of the child, but thereafter too. Support should also be provided to family members of the expecting mother, or other persons concerned, at the discretion of the board. The support or assistance given by the board shall require the consent of the expectant mother.
Section 7 of the Bill provides that the board may, by itself or with such representatives of particular groups or organisations as it considers appropriate, establish schemes. In regard to NGOs and other groups, such as health boards and the Department of Health and Children, there would be schemes, the objectives of which would be to protect and support the expectant mother and her unborn child or children. There should be a chief executive who should report to the Public Accounts Committee the need for generous funding. Fine Gael proposes that funding to the board should be £50 million over a ten year period, but if the £5 million per year does not meet the requirements, this could be reviewed by the relevant Oireachtas committees to which the board will report.
Fine Gael is a party committed to social justice. We want to look at root causes and support a practical contribution to addressing a serious problem which is of public concern. I ask that the Minister accept this Bill as a positive way of dealing with crisis pregnancies and of ensuring that the agency suggested by the Minister should be part of the proposed body.
This has been suggested by other members of Fine Gael and me, co-operatively and altruistically, to ensure that an issue which has been swept under the carpet for so long can be looked at positively. It should be approached through education and with the support of all sectors of the community, such as the health boards, the Department of Health and Children, non-governmental organisations and women's groups. Collectively we will do something worthwhile in a supportive, humanitarian and community-based way by putting this on a statutory footing. That is my plea to the Minister.