I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue of great importance this evening. The eighth amendment to the Constitution recognises the equal right to life of both the mother and the unborn child in the womb; and it creates a legal right to protect that unborn child, as far as practicable. I believe that it has saved thousands of lives since it was introduced in 1983.
I appreciate that this is a difficult issue to discuss for many people, probably the majority of people, including myself. There is a need for respect and reasoned debate from both sides. Many families are divided on this issue. I have never hidden my pro-life position; I made it clear throughout my election campaign and have spoken about it in this Chamber, on national television and in newspapers since my election. I am in favour of retaining the eighth amendment in its current form. I do not support a proposal which would legalise abortion on demand in Ireland. Like the majority of Irish people, I find the concept of late-term abortion particularly horrifying, and could never support the recommendation of the Oireachtas committee which proposed legalising abortion right up to birth in some cases.
Abortion has been a divisive issue for years. I do not take issue with a people's stance on this provided that they are open, honest and do not shy away from making their voice heard. As my colleague, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said last week, "If you don’t stand for anything, you will fall for everything." Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion on this topic, however, sometimes this is not always the case. People who hold a pro-life opinion are often ignored, and put down by the media and by campaigners who do not share their opinion. I hope that each Deputy will make his or her position clear on this issue. Everyone needs to stop hiding behind the ditches and make his or her position clear one way or the other.
The whole process enacted by the Government in the lead-up to this referendum has been questionable to say the least. The establishment of a Citizens' Assembly was unnecessary. We, the elected Members of Dáil Éireann, are the real, representative citizens' assembly. The Citizens' Assembly put together in Dublin Castle was not fully representative of the Irish people with several counties having no representation whatsoever. The farcical nature of the assembly is not the fault of its 99 members but of those who argued that just 99 people should be asked their opinion. No opinion poll would be taken seriously if it asked just 99 people for their opinion, and only 88 members of the assembly voted. The economist, Moore McDowell, writing in The Irish Times, said that the sample was just too small, and that another 99 people could have given a totally different answer. "A sample of 100 from the voting age population, even if properly selected, has a very wide margin of error," he noted.
The formation of the Oireachtas joint committee was also skewed, and this was often highlighted by my colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath. The committee's formation was clearly biased both in its membership and in who it invited to appear before it. The committee invited 24 pro-repeal witnesses and only four pro-life ones. Many of the witnesses who favoured repealing the eighth amendment were proved to be abortion rights campaigners such as the Centre for Reproductive Rights, a group which on its website appealed for donations to help overturn Ireland's right to life for unborn children. Other witnesses included a representative from the biggest abortion clinic chain in Britain, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which performs tens of thousands of abortions every year. One might as well expect Philip Morris to be a neutral expert on the subject of smoking. I would imagine most people would agree that abortionists are not neutral on the subject of the eighth amendment. I was disappointed to hear the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and other Members of the House raise the tragic cases of Ann Lovett and the Kerry babies as a reason to push for repeal. These harrowing stories had nothing to do with abortion, and every decent person will grieve for the injustice perpetrated and for the lives lost on both occasions. There is no tragedy made better by abortion, it does not introduce compassion where needed or support where that is required. These cases happened in a different Ireland, at a time when pregnancy out of marriage was frowned upon, a time when there were no services to offer families who encounter an unplanned pregnancy. I believe that if we offer abortion instead of real support, services and compassion to pregnant mothers, we are failing those pregnant mothers and their unborn children.
During his speech last week the Minister for Health also read statistics on the number of women from Ireland who travelled to England for an abortion last year. Unfortunately, the Minister left out some other very important statistics, such as those which tell us that one in every five babies loses his or her life to abortion in Britain. England is not unusual in that shocking abortion rate, as many other European countries also have abortion rates of approximately 20%. I do not think it is the way we want to go in this country. It is not the way we have to go. It is not progressive. It is not modern. There are other ways that we can support women and families facing difficult situations. Abortion is not something positive. Abortion ends lives, it does not save or improve them. The Minister also left out the facts about how babies with disabilities are hit hardest. In Britain, 90% of babies with Down's syndrome are aborted. Denmark is now aborting 98% of babies diagnosed with the condition, and in Iceland the rate is a heartbreaking 100%. Dr. Peter McParland, of the National Maternity Hospital, told the Citizens' Assembly that not one baby with Down's syndrome had been born there in the previous four years. I am very concerned about these babies diagnosed with disabilities and how their rights will be affected if we repeal the eighth amendment. At the moment, they do not receive any lesser protection than anyone else and I want our law to stay this way. I know some people have been trying to ignore the issue of disability, insisting that repealing the eighth amendment would make no difference to these babies. It worries me because babies with any disability would be at increased risk if the eighth amendment was repealed. Ireland has changed. It can and should rise to the challenge of offering a better answer than abortion. It can and should embrace both lives. I want Ireland to continue to protect the lives of our unborn children. In the past week, many of my colleagues failed to address the second person affected by abortion, the child in the womb. Every woman who becomes pregnant has a right under the eighth amendment to have her life protected, and has a right to whatever services or medical treatment she needs for whatever arises in pregnancy.
Sadly, many Deputies in this House seem to have no regard for the preborn baby, and some even believe that the baby has no right to life until that child is born. That is not a view shared by the majority of Irish people.
The committee also recommended legalising abortion for babies with a life-limiting condition, using the offensive and misleading term "fatal foetal abnormality" to describe these children. I was shocked in particular to see the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, using that term, despite the fact that the HSE recently revised standards on bereavement care and recognised that it is not the correct medical term to use. I am saddened to hear from parents in Every Life Counts, an organisation which represents parents whose babies died from life-limiting conditions, that the Minister has refused to meet them several times.
Last week, I received this email, as did all Members of the Oireachtas, from a man I did not know but who wished to share his story. This is a story that we do not usually hear, and with his permission I want to read an extract of it.
My wife and I were parents of a baby, who died at eight months old. She had what some people refer to as a fatal fetal abnormality, though we never thought of her in that way. I do not pretend that her brief life was without difficulties, but she had the living experience of being devotedly cared for by her loving parents and the enjoyment of her siblings. She, at least, had the opportunity to live her life to the full; that is only what we all aspire to.
I found this story deeply moving, as are the many other testimonies from families who explain their being supported so that they could pour a lifetime of love into the brief few hours or days with a baby after birth. It gave them tremendous healing. I remember reading a letter in the Irish Independent from a woman in Meath whose baby son lived very briefly after birth, and how she said that what sustained her after such a terrible loss was the knowledge that he never did anything to hurt her, and she never did anything to hurt him. I note that Cork University Maternity Hospital seems to have an excellent support system for parents who are told their babies may not live, and that it has published research showing that most parents under its care do not seek abortion. Its model of care is obviously helping families, and we need to listen to parents and wrap them and their babies in compassion at such a difficult time.
I come back to the email we all received where that parent said that the opportunity to live a life is something we can all aspire to. There are many similar stories, if the media would allow us to hear them. There are many stories about the life-saving effect the eighth amendment has had on people the length and breadth of our country.
Much of the discussion around repealing the eighth amendment is about the availability of illegal abortion pills and how we must legislate for abortion as both the pills and the procedure are going to be carried out anyway despite the illegality. I believe that this is flawed logic. We do not and would not apply similar reasoning to illegal drugs simply because people use them anyway. The truth is that we do not really know how many women are using abortion pills because the figures the Minister and so many others in this Chamber are relying on are coming from research carried out by those who provide abortion pills, who are hardly neutral researchers. However, if even one woman is using them, it is a cause for concern and we need to address this by increasing supports and awareness. To the best of my knowledge, the Minister for Health has not commissioned a nationwide awareness campaign informing women of the dangers of taking abortion pills without medical supervision. It seems to me that such a national awareness campaign surely should have been rolled out by the Government when the danger of taking abortion pills was under discussion so frequently in the media. Furthermore, it is extraordinary that Members of this House took it upon themselves to distribute abortion pills illegally, despite warnings from the then master of the Rotunda that these actions could endanger the lives of women.
I cannot accept the committee’s recommendation to allow for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. The committee also wants abortion legalised right up to birth on undefined physical or mental health grounds. This is a very extreme and cruel recommendation. Like some of my pro-life colleagues before me said, I believe that life begins at conception. There is no other point where we can say that our life begins. This is my belief and it always has been and it always will be. By just three weeks' gestation, the baby’s heart has begun to beat, a fact denied at the committee, but which can be found in almost all medical textbooks. At four weeks, the baby’s arm buds begin to develop, and at eight weeks the baby is fully formed. By ten weeks, the baby’s fingerprints and fingernails are starting to emerge. These facts alone provide enough reason for me to know that aborting that very child that I have described above, at 12 weeks' gestation, is ending a human life.
I find it extraordinary that the Oireachtas committee did not hear any evidence from an embryologist regarding the development of the baby in the womb. Modern technology has given us an extraordinary window to the womb and to the humanity of the baby, and it is a real shame that some people refuse to look at that evidence. As the saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see. Similarly, the committee did not discuss the alternative of adoption in any meaningful way. I find this difficult to understand. Surely it should have been a priority to examine life-affirming alternatives to abortion. It is rare for babies to be adopted in Ireland. There were just five domestic infant adoptions in 2016, for example. Is this not a discussion worth having in three months of committee meetings? It is a real pity that we do not have a report before us from this committee that considered all of the aspects of this issue instead of just picking and choosing which ones were important and which did not make the cut in the eyes of the organisers.
The most obvious people who were not allowed to speak to the committee are all the people who say they would have had an abortion in Ireland if it was available here. Instead they found support and help in this country and now they have a child who they love. There is no mystery about these people. We all know who they are. We all know people who got pregnant and who maybe took some time to get used to the idea of having a baby. Maybe they thought about travelling for an abortion but because it was not easily available here, they had the time to think about it some more and that time was enough for them to change their mind and have a baby instead of an abortion. We had the Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and there was no room for families who say the eighth amendment is the reason their child is alive today. Part of me thinks that the real debate we should be having today is why the committee overlooked people like that who are so important.
There are many different estimates about how many lives the eighth amendment has saved. In reality, it is probably impossible to know the true figure. Does it really matter? If there was only person, one child, where it could be said for definite that there would have been an abortion but because abortion was not available in Ireland, the mother could not go straight to a clinic in Dublin and the extra time was what she needed to change her mind, should that not be enough for us? We know these families are out there. We know their children are alive. Nonetheless, I am confident that the public does not want to see abortion becoming available in Ireland when taking these facts into account.
I believe that part of my job as a Deputy is to protect and serve my constituents and all citizens in every possible way. My record will prove similar. I worked and fought hard with Vera Twomey so that her little daughter Ava could return from the Netherlands and avail of the medicine she so desperately needed here in Ireland. I have travelled, organised, highlighted and assisted dozens of Irish people to avail of cataract operations in Belfast under the cross-Border health care directive because they have been failed by our Minister for Health and the HSE time and again. I have spoken to and raised the issue of cystic fibrosis patients who were unable to afford the Orkambi drug before the Government finally accepted it into our health budget. This medication can literally save lives. I, along with my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group, tried our hardest to relocate the national children’s hospital to a place where it would be easily accessed by children from throughout the country and an area where there is space to expand and have bilocation of maternity and children’s hospitals rather than an overcrowded city suburb. Just last week, I stood with members of the Irish Countrywomen's Association, Age Action Ireland and many others outside the gates of the Dáil to call on the Government to restore the old age pension to its pre-2012 levels and allow our elderly live comfortably.
My record since being elected to the Dáil a year and a half ago shows that I respect and fight for the betterment of all people at every stage of their life, regardless of any disability or illness. I believe that it would be hypocritical of me if I remained silent on this issue and, by doing so, played a part in legalising abortion in our country. It would be hypocritical of me if I did not stand up for the most vulnerable and voiceless of all humans in our society. It would be hypocritical of me if I did not try to protect the most basic human right of all, which is the right to life of an unborn child. Without this right to life, all other rights are meaningless. I hope those who disagree can respect my opinion, as I will have to respect theirs. I also hope that the people will retain the eighth amendment, which underlines a truly compassionate answer to difficulties arising for women in pregnancy.
I have to take issue with this and previous Governments taking the moral high ground on care for women because when we look deeper into their records they leave a lot to be desired.
Last week we saw the appalling travesty of justice in the Kerry babies case where the State, by its actions, destroyed Joanne Hayes and her family. We have to think of the hepatitis C scandal where women were seriously injured as a result of receiving contaminated blood transfusions. Our State fought those women all the way, even when some of them were on their deathbed.
We should look at the way this State treated Vera Twomey and her fight for medicinal cannabis for her daughter, Ava. She was almost left to die in her fight to give her daughter the right to a normal life, in the end the State forcing her to go abroad for a cure.
We have seen many reports from the courts about children being seriously damaged during birth yet the organs of our State fight the parents all the way, and in doing so cause much hardship to these families. We should look back at the Government which put severe hardship on mothers and families with the savage cuts in child allowance some years ago. Yesterday, the Government was forced to yield to the pressure to redress the unfairness women were suffering as a result of a Labour Party Minister imposing totally unfair cuts in 2012 on women who had stayed at home in a caring role to care for their children and their relatives. Yesterday's decision has gone part of the way to resolving this issue but full justice needs to be given.
Just before Christmas a constituent in west Cork had a very sick baby in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin. I went to be with that family on one of the days and when I looked around I saw the incredible staff fighting to bring back to health these stunning children, and their parents fighting day and night to keep their children alive. It made me think how precious the life of a child is.
Again, I plead with all to show respect to everyone on this issue, as I have done through the years. I will not vote for a change to the eighth amendment as it has and will, if left unchanged, give full protection to the unborn in this country.