YESTERDAY WAS THE third and final day of hearings being held by the Oireachtas committee examining how the government should go about legislating for the X Case on abortion.
After two days of medical and legal evidence yesterday was the turn of religious and faith groups as well as advocacy groups to give their opinions on the issue to the Joint Committee on Health and Children.
Representations came from the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church of Ireland, Methodist Church of Ireland, Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland and Atheist Ireland in the morning.
Before lunchtime we heard from the Pro-Life Campaign, Youth Defence, Family & Life, and the Iona Institute. Then in the afternoon we heard evidence from Choice Ireland, the National Women’s Council of Ireland and Action on X.
As we have done with every hearing so far we liveblogged evidence as it was heard but for a slightly more succinct summary of the evidence, here are the 10 most interesting moments from Thursday’s hearings.
1. There remains a view that the government does not need to legislate for X
Professor William Binchy touched on it on Wednesday but the view that the government does not need to legislate for the X Case – even though it has committed to doing so – was expressed more widely during yesterday’s hearings.
Dr Christopher Jones, the Catholic Bishop of Elphin, said that “appropriate guidelines, which continue to exclude the direct and intentional killing of the unborn or a referendum to overturn the X case judgement” should be explored by the government.
Appearing later in the day Dr Eoghan de Faoite, a medical doctor and member of Youth Defence, said that medical guidelines already in existence are sufficient and the medical evidence has borne that out.
2. Most religious groups favour X legislation
Except for the Catholic Church and the Islamic Cultural Centre, all of the religious groups who appeared yesterday expressed the view that legislation for the X Case should be implemented in full.
In the case of the Church of Ireland, Archbishop Michael Jackson said the current state of affairs is “unfair” to both women and medical professionals and welcomed the government’s decision to legislate.
Heidi Good of the Methodist Church and Trevor Morrow, who was representing the Presbyterian Church, echoed this view with Morrow pointing out that abortion is being practised in Ireland today – otherwise members of the medical profession would not be seeking to protect people.
3. Suicide remains the most contentious issue
The inclusion of suicide as risk to life in legislation for the X Case is proving to be controversial and troublesome to many who have appeared before the committee. Though the government decision is to fully implement the X Case judgement through law and regulations, various groups appearing before the committee have raised the inclusion of suicide as being problematic.
All of the pro-life groups who appeared in the middle session yesterday broadly expressed the view that allowing for abortion on the grounds of the threat of suicide would inevitably lead to a viable foetus being killed through no fault of its own.
In fact, Dr Berry Kiely, from the Pro Life Campaign, expressed the view that abortion is not a remedy for suicide, and furthermore, abortion is associated with an increased risk of suicide. Her colleague Caroline Simons said that the belief of medics was that abortion was never a treatment for suicidality.
Labour’s Aodhan Ó Riordain has consistently made the point during the hearings that the suicide risk needs to be legislated for because of the ruling in the X Case. He noted yesterday that the committee’s sole task is to figure out how best to implement the X ruling in full. He said anyone attending the committee arguing that point was there under false pretences.
4. Some believe we need another referendum
As mentioned, the Catholic Church is of the view that the only way to ultimately address the difficulties posed by the X Case judgement is to have another referendum. Bishop Jones said that the only way to address the issue definitively was a new referendum. He said that the Supreme Court ruling had “reversed totally” the 1983 referendum on recognising the rights of the unborn, the 8th amendment.
David Manley, from the Family & Life group, said that he would like a new referendum to amend the constitution and undo the effect of the X Case while his fellow pro-life advocate Caroline Simons said that the X Case judgement was “faulty” and needed to be addressed by referendum.
5. Abortion beyond the X Case
Heidi Good, from the Methodist Church of Ireland, expressed the belief that while her church was against abortion on demand, termination of pregnancy should be acceptable when the mother’s life is at risk, there is a grave risk of serious injury to physical or mental health, where there is a gross abnormality of the foetus or where there is a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.
Rabbi Zalman Lent from the Irish Jewish Community largely echoed this view saying that his faith allows abortion in these cases. The belief contrasted with the views of other church representatives but touched on a point that has been raised at certain points in recent days that legislators may need to eventually look beyond the X Case and broaden the availability of abortion beyond the parameters in set down by the Supreme Court.
By contrast, Bishop Jones expressed sadness towards the girls and women who became pregnant as a result of rape but said that the denial of human life was not condonable even in those cases. A view that was echoed by Dr Ali Selim from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland who said that children born in this “unfortunate situation” are still entitled to life.
6. Separation of church and State
Atheist Ireland’s Michael Nugent (above) perhaps unsurprisingly expressed the belief that the laws of the land should not be determined by the religious beliefs of its citizens. “Our laws should not be based on other people’s religious beliefs,” he told the Committee.
7. The Supreme Court is not infallible
Dr Kiely expressed that view that the highest court in the land is not infallible and speculated that it would have reached a very different conclusion in the X Case if it had heard the same evidence that the committee has heard this week. Patrick Carr from the Family & Life group cited the US Supreme Court’s pro-slavery rulings as one example of the highest courts making flawed decisions.
Later in the day the view of the pro-choice groups was that the Supreme Court ruling needed to be respected, and implemented.
8. Day three was more adversarial than days one and two
Though it must be said that overall these hearings were balanced, respectful, thoughtful, and highly informative there were one or two moments when things threatened to boil over.
Credit must go to Chairman Jerry Buttimer for ensuring calm though that did not prevent him from unexpectedly telling Youth Defence that the manner of their campaigning “needs to be reviewed”. That led to a suggestion that Buttimer had “impugned” the dignity of the hearings. “You turned this at the end into an adversarial encounter,” Dr Sean Ó Domhnaill from the Life Institute told the chair.
Buttimer, to be fair, reiterated his view about campaigning when the pro-choice groups appeared later in the day and that appearance was also noticeable for the content on Choice Ireland’s website being raised, a move which Abigail Rooney (above), from Choice Ireland, said was “juvenile”. A remark which she later apologised for.
9. The ‘chilling factor’
The 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act needs to be repealed in the view of the pro-choice groups because of the creation of a “chilling factor” by its existence and the potential for doctors to go to jail for carrying out abortions.
Ailbhe Smyth from Action on X said that the relevant sections in the Act were “chilling” and “redundant” but unsurprisingly the pro life side disagreed with barrister Maria Steen saying that she and her colleagues believe there to be no legal reality of the prospect of a prosecution brought under the 1861 rules as long as the doctor acts in good faith.
10. The big work starts now
As parliamentary hearings go the last three days have been informative, insightful and no doubt hugely beneficial to preparing a report for the Minister for Health James Reilly as he and the government go about formulating legislation for the X Case.
In the Seanad chamber yesterday Reilly addressed the Committee by noting the considerable work that lies ahead such as determining locations for terminations, the number of doctors involved, the issue of conscientious objection and other issues which will need to be examined.
Buttimer, who has been widely praised for his role as chair, now goes off with the rest of the committee to formulate a report that will inform the drafting of the legislation, a report he expects to complete by the end of the month.
This has undoubtedly been a good piece of parliamentary process but the ultimate proof of its success will be in the kind of legislation that is formulated and how much of it is based on the submissions we’ve heard in recent days.
(All images: Screengrabs via Oireachtas.ie)