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Abortion: These were the amendments passed by TDs this week

It is likely the landmark bill to regulate abortion services in Ireland will pass in the Dáil at the earliest next week.

Scenes at Dublin Castle in May
Scenes at Dublin Castle in May
Image: Niall Carson

AFTER 15 HOURS of debate this week, the abortion legislation is yet to pass Report Stage in the Dáil. 

It is likely the landmark bill to regulate abortion services in Ireland will pass in the Dáil at the earliest next week. 

Once Report and Final Stages in the Dáil are complete, the Bill will make its way to the Seanad before the politicians head off on their Christmas holidays on 16 December (though there has been some talk about pushing that date out to get the legislation passed).

Of the 65 amendments put down by TDs, only a handful were passed. 

These were all government amendments which related to the review of the legislation, student nurses being covered by conscientious objection, and two doctors being permitted to certify a patient for an abortion in the case the first doctor she saw is unavailable. 

The government is under pressure to progress the Bill before the Christmas break so as to ensure abortion services can be fully operational and available in Ireland in January. 

Timeline

Health Minister Simon Harris dismissed reports that he would not get it over the line in time.  

The government amendments passed include one relating to the time in which the legislation will be reviewed. The minister has decided to review the law after three years of its commencement, rather than five years, as was originally proposed. 

The next amendment from Harris follows on from concerns from TDs and medical professionals who wanted to ensure a second doctor is able to help a woman access an abortion in case the first doctor, who certified her for a termination, isn’t available.

This is to avoid the scenario where the woman would be certified by a doctor for an abortion, but then after the three-day wait period, comes back to find the doctor who originally certified her for an abortion is not available at the time.

A number of opposition TDs raised concerns about the three-day wait period. The wait period relates to the time in which a woman first indicates and approaches a doctor for an abortion. The proposed legislation sets out that she must wait for a period of three-days before she is allowed terminate the pregnancy. 

From the government’s point of view, it argues the wait period was promised in the draft Bill ahead of the referendum vote in May, and is therefore reluctant to drop it. 

Fianna Fáil’s Mary Butler, who campaigned for a No vote, said the three-day wait period was contained in the Heads of the Bill and if taken out now would show the government “misled” the Irish people. Independent TD Peadar Tóibín suggested the wait period was only included to get Tanaiste Simon Coveney onside. 

One of the five government amendments to be accepted relates to including student nurses into the clause relating to the conscientious objection of medical practitioners such as nurses, doctors and midwives. 

Criminal sanctions

One of the most talked about amendments this week was one put down by pro-choice TDs which sought to amend a bill to lift the threat of criminal sanction for doctors who perform abortions in contravention to the regulations set out in the Act.

The proposed law sets out that anyone who helps a woman access an illegal abortion could still face a 14-year prison sentence.

Pro-choice TDs such as Ruth Coppinger, Mick Barry, Paul Murphy, Catherine Martin, Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, Joan Collins, Louise O’Reilly, Bríd Smith, Gino Kenny, Richard Boyd Barrett and Catherine Murphy sought to remove the section from the Bill.

Amnesty International hit out against the defeat of the amendment, stating that criminalising health professionals who perform abortions is never good for women.

“Making abortion a crime punishable by up to 14 years is not necessary or useful to protect women from forced abortions. Coercion or abuse can and should be addressed through existing criminal laws. Instead, international evidence does show that criminalising medical professionals creates a chilling effect that can lead to delays or denial of lawful abortion services for women and girls who need them.

“Our new abortion law must ensure this health service is regulated in the same way as any other—through general criminal law and the disciplinary procedures of health regulatory authorities,” said Sorcha Tunney, Amnesty International Ireland’s Campaign Coordinator. 

Amendments defeated 

Other amendments defeated this week called for public funds not to be used in abortion services. The motion was put forward by No campaigner TD Carol Nolan. 

An amendment which would ban abortion up to 12 weeks on grounds of race, gender and disability was also voted down, with the health minister pointing out that abortion on grounds of disability is already illegal.

After three days of debate, the Dáil made it through 41 of the 65 amendments put down. Further debate is scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week in order to get the legislation progressed in time for the January deadline. 

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