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Dublin: 3 °C Monday 24 November, 2014

Column: I have always considered myself pro-choice, but I can’t support the proposed abortion bill

Colm Keaveney TD explains that if the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 is initiated in the Dáil reflecting the contents and detail of the Heads of Bill that were recently discussed before the Joint Committee on Health, he will be unable to support it.

Colm Keaveney

ON THE NIGHT of February 6 of this year the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation Bill 2013 was laid before the Dáil for consideration. It was the first major Bill to be enacted following my loss of the Labour Party whip in December. As such, it fell to me to determine how to vote on this Bill and to consider its contents without the (now questionable) comforts of the party whip to direct my vote.

On that night, having considered what was a highly technical Bill in the insufficient time granted to the Dáil by the Government, I decided to vote against the Bill on the basis of flaws in the Bill that gave me cause for concern as to their possible consequences. Since then many of my fears have been vindicated and I suspect that some Deputies that voted for the Bill that night either now regret or will regret passing it in such haste.

We are now faced with another Bill, this one of grave importance, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013. This Bill is not being rushed through the Dáil. Significant time is being given to it, but much of this time will be spent in ‘managing’ Deputies from various parties through the vote under the careful eye of their whips. I suspect that, years from now, many Deputies will have cause to regret their vote on this Bill, given what I believe to be the likely consequences.

Until now, I would have been comfortable with the label ‘pro-choice’

Being honest, I have to admit that as a man I have, until recently, not given this issue the consideration that it deserves. Until now, I would always have been comfortable with the label of pro-choice but never have had to define that or reason it out for myself.

It must be said that the use of labels in debates on this area is most unhelpful and serves only to cloud the debate. It can often descend into a mere exchange of slogans as opposed to being, as Roger Scruton has said ‘an endeavour to set out the human problem in its full complexity before attempting a legislative answer to it’.

This Bill has forced me to think through my position and having done so I find myself in a position of saying that if, when the Bill is initiated in the Dáil, it reflects the contents and detail of the Heads of Bill that were recently discussed before the Joint Committee on Health, then I will be unable to support it.

The main points of concern that I have with the Bill are mainly contained in Head 4 – those relating to the risk of loss of life from self-destruction, ie suicide. There are a number of grounds upon which my concerns rest.

The idea that a baby, as anticipated in the Heads of Bill, would be intentionally delivered prematurely, which would leave it at risk of disability, and placed in an incubator under the care of the State is seems somewhat dystopian to me. Minister of State, Alex White, confirmed this understanding during his closing remarks to the Health Committee on Tuesday evening. However, neither he nor the Minister for Health have been able to provide any detail about how the welfare of such infants would be secured, including their welfare into adulthood with any disability that may arise from such an early delivery as is envisaged by this legislation.

No limits on pregnancy stages

The above arises as the Bill does not impose any limits on up to what stage of pregnancy that a termination may be carried out. There is little to suggest that the Irish People would be willing to agree to late term terminations. These issues arise, in part, from the failure of the Heads of Bill to adequately balance the right to the life of the mother with that of the unborn as the Constitution appears to me to demand under Article 40. The Heads of Bill explicitly state that “the decision to be reached is not so much a balancing of the competing rights – rather, it is a clinical assessment”. Legislators, it should be noted, have a duty under Article 15 of the Constitution to not knowingly enact any law that would be repugnant to the Constitution.

Other concerns that I have with this Bill include the danger that this legislation may further normalise suicide as an option. This is at a time where this country is undergoing a suicide epidemic. We need to show some caution and understanding towards the potential effects that such normalisation may have. The provisions under Head 12 relating to conscientious objections need to be broadened so as to conform with human rights norms and I remain open to the question of extending conscientious objection to cover institutions as well as individuals.

The risk of suicide should not be included

There are substantial parts of the legislation that I would be happy to support if they had been presented as a separate piece of legislation. These include the proposed measures that deal with physical illness, including a medical emergency, but not including the risk of suicide, where the medical procedure concern is necessary to save the life of the mother from a real and substantial risk to her life.

However, any such procedures must conform to the ethical principle of double effect and take an adequate account of the equal rights of the unborn as per Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution. Legal clarity in this area is to be welcomed as medical professionals must be given clear legislative direction on these issues.

It is my hope that the Minister for Health will take the various testimonies that have been heard from witness before the Health Committee into account when drafting the Bill and that some of the concerns raised by myself and others will be taken into account.

This is not a Bill that Deputies would wish to look back on ten years from now with regret: by then it will be too late.

Colm Keaveney is a sitting TD for Galway East .

Read: TDs to support abortion amendment to provide for medical terminations
Read: Amnesty International: ‘Abortion laws out of line with international human rights standards’
Read: Women who had medical terminations to share experiences with TDs

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