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Dublin: 1 °C Wednesday 26 November, 2014

Column: Legislators colluded against women but abortion law provides clarity

Irish women have been denied their constitutional right to adequate maternal healthcare but the new draft law changes that, argues Labour TD Ciara Conway.

Ciara Conway

THE PUBLISHING OF the Heads of Bill for the Protection of Life during Pregnancy 2013 last night marks an important piece of social legislation. This Bill offers clarity on a legal quagmire which successive governments have been content to duck and dive from for over twenty years.

Thankfully this Government is dealing with the reality that sometimes in pregnancy a woman’s life can be put at risk and in these rare circumstances we must protect her life.

The inconvenient truth is that despite going to the Irish people twice by way of referendum, Irish women have been denied their constitutional right to adequate maternal healthcare.

Through inaction, we as legislators have colluded over the last 21 years in making already difficult circumstances unbearable for women.

But casting a legal blind eye to the realities of a small number of women’s tragic circumstances didn’t magically fix their problem, instead it created uncertainty and confusion not just for women and their families, but also for their doctors.

In January 2013 at the special hearings of the Oireachtas Health Committee on the Expert Group report, I was struck by the contributions made by a number of medical professionals, each telling of their own maternity hospital’s unique story but the majority of them calling for the same thing – clarity.

This Bill provides that clarity and most importantly workable solutions. Crucially it reaches an agreement concerning the number of doctors required to decide whether a woman is entitled to a lawful termination of pregnancy.

Legislating for X, no more and no less

Critics of the Bill suggest that it is too restrictive, but we have been tasked with legislating for the X Case, no more and no less. This Bill strongly reflects on the key recommendations of the Expert Group and deals specifically with the Ireland versus A, B and C case.

The Heads of Bill state that where there is a threat to life of the woman due to suicide, three consultant doctors will be required – one obstetrician and two psychiatrists. This is required to validate the need for a termination due to a real and substantial risk to the life of the woman.

The requirement for two psychiatrists is included in the recommendations of the Expert Group, which draws attention to the potentially greater challenge in correctly diagnosing expressed suicide intent. As stated in the Expert Group report, this is so that the woman and her doctors may be more secure in the diagnosis and in subsequent decisions.

Any review which can only be requested by the woman will be done in an expedient manner, no longer than seven days. The review will reflect the initial assessment and will not be any more restrictive.

Again, the review process closely reflects the recommendations in the Expert Group report and reflects normal medical practice.

Today’s decision is about believing and trusting women who find themselves in a distressing situation, and providing a sensitive and workable process to help them.

The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar highlighted the legal uncertainty faced by doctors in dealing with medical emergencies where the life of a woman is at risk.

Women should always have a say

I believe a woman should always have a say in her medical treatment. We have thankfully come a long way in this regard, but there is a whole generation of women living with the consequences of having no say at all in their maternity care.

We cannot go back to those dark days.

For 21 years, the Labour Party has been a strong, and most often, a lone voice on the need to act in relation to the X Case.

This position was neither popular at the ballot box or from the pulpit, it wasn’t always a popular position to take for our candidates or our grassroots members, but it was the right one.

As Vice-Chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Health, I look forward to discussing the Heads of Bill in a constructive and open way in order to assist in the progression of this legislation through the Dáil.

It is important that as Members of the Oireachtas we no longer collude in silence on this issue, and we act on this important and sensitive matter, in order that women’s lives are protected.

Reaction: Pro-life groups: ‘Proposals go too far’; Pro-choice: ‘Bill doesn’t go far enough’

Read: What the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013 contains

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