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Abortion Services

People Before Profit bill calling for wider access to abortion passes Dáil second stage

The bill is seeking to abolish the mandatory three-day waiting period for an abortion.

A PEOPLE BEFORE Profit bill calling for the mandatory three-day waiting period for an abortion to be abolished has passed second stage in the Dáil. 

The private members bill, brought by Bríd Smith, seeks to amend the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 to provide for abortion on request prior to foetal viability.

It also calls for the three-day waiting period for abortion to be abolished, as well as allowing for abortion on the grounds of fatal foetal abnormality that is likely to lead to the death of the foetus either before or within a year of birth.

The bill also seeks to allow for abortion where there is a risk to the life, or of serious harm to the health, of the pregnant woman, and to decriminalise the provision of abortion.

The bill passed second stage with 67 votes to 64 with eight abstentions. Coalition TDs were given a free vote in the matter.

Ministers Roderic O’Gorman, Catherine Martin and Ossian Smyth, along with Ministers of State Joe O’Brien, Neale Richmond and Malcolm Noonan voted in favour of the bill being progressed.

Coalition TDs Francis Noel Duffy, Brian Leddin, Steven Matthews, Marc Ó Cathasaigh and Patrick Costello also voted in favour.

From the same side of the house, Ministers Eamon Ryan and Darragh O’Brien abstained along with Emer Higgins, Paul McAuliffe, John Lahart, Jim O’Callaghan and Christopher O’Sullivan.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly also abstained in this vote.

A government amendment to delay the bill for a year was defeated by 74 votes to 61 with three abstentions.

Minister Smyth and Ministers of State O’Brien, Dara Calleary and Patrick O’Donovan voted against the amendment along with Costello, Charlie Flanagan, Brendan Griffin, Cormac Devlin, Michael Creed, Ciarán Cannon, John McGuinness and Éamon Ó Cuív.

The bill will now proceed to the third stage. A bill must pass through five stages in both the Dáil and Seanad before it can be enacted.

Speaking after the vote, Smith said: “This is a great day for the movement for choice and for women’s healthcare, but it is only the start.

“Well done to all the people who campaigned for this amazing result. We have to keep the pressure on so that this bill can become law- so that we can remove the three day waiting period and decriminalise abortion in this country. Women cannot wait anymore for modern reproductive healthcare in Ireland.”

It comes after the Health Committee heard that the Government is in need of “strong leadership and courage” to make the changes to the abortion act that have been recommended by barrister Marie O’ Shea. 

Several leading politicians have voiced their concerns about making changes to the abortion act, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar  who said he felt “reluctant and uncomfortable” at the prospect. 

O’Shea, who carried out a Government commissioned review of abortion services, today told the health committee that amending the abortion act would not represent a “creep towards a more progressive termination of pregnancy regime”. 

The legislative changes O’ Shea recommended in her report included scrapping the mandatory three day waiting period before a termination of pregnancy, and ending the ongoing criminalisation of medical practitioners. 

Dr Marie O'Shea, and Dr Catherine Conlon. Dr Marie O'Shea and Dr Catherine Conlon. OireachtasTV OireachtasTV

These changes were recommended in order to improve access to abortion services, as hundreds of Irish women are still having to travel abroad to get care every year. 

She said that since the publication of her report, she has heard “senior members of Government and others voice concerns about changes to the legislation, fearing that they would be perceived as tantamount to a breach of promise with the electorate”. 

Acknowledging that the public were provided with a guidance framework that outlined restrictions around waiting periods etc before the abortion referendum in 2018, O’ Shea said that it is true that some would have been influenced by the proposed regulations, and may have “genuine fears” about these being changed. 

However, she pointed out that the electorate could not have foreseen the difficulties that have arisen when it comes to the operationalising of the act. 

“The legislature included a provision to review the operation  of the act after three years,” she added. 

The health committee questioned O’Shea on what some of these difficulties have been. 

The barrister said that the recruitment of GPs and consultants who are willing to provide abortion services is a key stumbling block, which has caused access issues in rural areas, and has seen women who were eligible for a termination in Ireland still have to travel abroad for the procedure. 

She said that it is unclear whether employers have a right to ask candidates about their willingness to provide abortion services at interview stage. 

TD Bernard Durkan asked O’ Shea why it is the case that some women who present to their GP within 12 weeks are still ending up outside of the timeframe for accessing services in Ireland. 

“People can be quite slow in realising that they are pregnant for various reasons. 

“People who present at a later stage to the GP – if they present at nine weeks plus six days – have to be referred to a hospital for termination of pregnancy there. 

O’Shea added that she has heard from GPs that presenting at 11 weeks, or being unsure of the date of pregnancy is more prevalent amongst women from disadvantaged groups in society. 

In this case the women will be sent for an ultrasound scan so the date of their pregnancy can be established. 

“In some parts of the country this pathway works quite well, in other parts of the country it is less reliable. 

O’Shea said that where there are breakdowns in communications between hospital and GPS, some women end up in a situation where “because of the three day wait or simply because of the delay in assessing the time of the pregnancy they have timed out”. 

In response to questioning from the Sinn Féin spokesperson on health, O’Shea said that there is no medical or legal reason for the mandatory three day waiting period before a termination of pregnancy. 

Asked why, in her view, it was then included in the legislation in the first place, O’ Shea said that it was intended to give people a “reflection period so that they didn’t make a mistake”. 

She said that from the findings of the study, women almost universally said that they didn’t benefit from this waiting period. 

Dr Catherine Conlon, who led the study on abortion care services, told the committee that the waiting period is “causing anxiety and distress” to people who are trying to access “time sensitive” healthcare. 

Additional reporting from Jane Moore and the Press Association

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