I thank the Seanad for facilitating the change of time. I wanted to be here with Members to take this Bill and to do so in the knowledge of Government decisions in regard to this matter today, which I thought would be useful in terms of informing the debate. I am very pleased to be here to introduce the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill to the Seanad. I have asked for copies of my speech to be circulated.
Today we start the debate in this House on a Bill which, if passed, will give the people of Ireland the chance to vote on one of the most debated sections in our Constitution, Article 40.3.3°. From the outset, I want make it very clear that the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitutional Bill is about giving the people of Ireland a say on how they believe we should proceed. As I have said before, a great proportion of the people who would vote on this proposal have lived with Article 40.3.3° for their entire reproductive lives. Many medical practitioners have had to practice under the shadow of Article 40.3.3° for their whole careers. It is time - in fact, I think it is well past time - that we give all of those people the opportunity to make their wishes on the subject known. This Bill, if passed, would allow the people to vote on the substantive issue for the first time in 35 years.
For me, it is about giving the people a say on how we treat women at one of the most difficult times in their lives. It is about our sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, friends and colleagues. I recognise the deeply held views on all sides of this debate and I respect them. I dislike the labels that are used to characterise this debate because I believe that those of us who believe in providing care and support for women who make the very difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy are not doing so out of disrespect for unborn life. All of us love life. All of us wish to protect life. However, I trust that no woman arrives at this decision lightly, and I trust doctors to make the clinical decisions and provide the care to support them. If the eighth amendment is repealed, I believe we can replace it with a balanced legal framework that sets out the circumstances in which terminations are lawful, and they will remain unlawful in all others.
Article 40.3.3° of the Constitution was inserted by the eighth amendment in 1983, with the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments inserted in 1992, expanding the text. It has meant there were no circumstances in which Irish women could be cared for in their own country. It does not matter if we are talking about a woman or girl who is pregnant as a result of rape and cannot continue with the pregnancy. It does not matter if we are talking about a woman who is carrying a much wanted baby that she has desperately yearned for but who knows that baby will not survive due to a fatal foetal abnormality. In 1992 the Supreme Court decided in Attorney General v. X that the Constitution permitted a termination of a pregnancy where there was a real and substantial risk to the life of a woman which could only be removed by terminating the pregnancy. Lawful termination of pregnancy was placed on the Statute Book, albeit in a very limited form, by the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act permits termination only in situations where a woman will otherwise die. It does not permit termination, for example, in the heartbreaking cases where there is a diagnosis of a foetal condition likely lead to death before or shortly after birth, where a woman has been raped or where a woman's health may be permanently damaged by the pregnancy. I think we have to be able to do better than a law where the only right a pregnant woman in this country has is not to die. It has become clear that the Oireachtas can do nothing to help these women without constitutional change. This is why holding a referendum on this subject is a democratic imperative, in my view.
Last year the Government put in place a process to examine Article 40.3.3°. A Citizens' Assembly was established with its first order of business being to consider the eighth amendment of the Constitution, which is contained in Article 40.3.3°. In June 2017 the assembly recommended that the eighth amendment should be replaced with a provision that explicitly authorises the Oireachtas to legislate to address termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn and any rights of the woman. The assembly also recommended a number of reasons for which termination of pregnancy should be lawful in Ireland and gestational limits that should apply.
An all-party Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution was then established by the Oireachtas to consider the Citizens' Assembly report and recommendations. I should note that the recommendations contained in the committee's report represent the views of the majority of members but there was not unanimous agreement on them, which I recognise.
I thank the members of the committee, many of who are Members of this House, and its Chair, my colleague, Senator Noone, for her excellent stewardship and leadership in that regard.