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Thursday 21 September 2023 Dublin: 12°C
# abortion laws
Holly Cairns: 'Our healthcare shouldn't be informed by Leo saying he feels uncomfortable'
The SocDems leader says Ireland is still exporting the care of some pregnant women.

SOCIAL DEMOCRATS LEADER Holly Cairns has said she is concerned that Ireland is still exporting the provision of healthcare for women with pregnancies affected by fatal foetal abnormalities.

Concerns have been raised previously that despite abortion legislation being in place for five years now, couples are reporting that they still have to travel for terminations despite being told their baby is unlikely to live long after birth.

This point was highlighted in the independent review of the legislation, which was published in recent weeks. 

Changes were recommended for women who need to access an abortion beyond 12 weeks in the case of fatal foetal abnormality.

The current legislation allows for abortion only in cases where two medical practitioners form a reasonable opinion the foetus will likely die before or within 28 days of birth.

The review states that where doctors have formed an opinion in good faith based on the knowledge available to them that a pregnancy would result in a fatal foetal abnormality, then a termination could proceed.

The independent review points out that ‘fatal foetal anomaly’ is not a medical term and that there is “not any definitive list of conditions where death occurs in utero or within 28 days of birth”.

Concerns around the criminality aspect of the legislation were also raised in the review. While the woman is decriminalised under 2018′s Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Act, it criminalises anyone who assists a pregnant person to obtain an abortion outside of the provisions of the Act, with a prison sentence of up to 14 years. 

Repeal the Eighth anniversary

Speaking to The Journal in the run up to the sixth anniversary of the repealing of the Eighth Amendment on 25 May, Cairns said it was a time that mobilised a whole generation. 

“It really showed that when you offer the general public a progressive alternative, there’s quite a good chance that they’ll take it,” she said.

Cairns has previously spoken about how it was her involvement in the Repeal the Eighth campaign that sparked her interest in politics. 

She said it was her training in campaigning that helped her make the choice to leap into politics – first becoming a councillor, then a TD and now the leader of the Social Democrats.

However, with the review of the legislation now published, she states that it is “frustrating” that there is now evidence to inform the law and simple steps that could be taken quite quickly to prevent further suffering, yet the government is dragging its feet again.

The review recommends ten changes to current legislation and 60 operational changes in relation to termination services and laws.

A number of politicians have spoken about the proposals in the review, raising concerns about changing the three-day wait period in which a woman must wait between her first appointment with her doctor and getting a termination. The review recommends that this wait period should not be mandatory.

Concerns at the Cabinet table 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has also spoken about his reluctance to make such changes to that aspect of the legislation, saying last month that he would be “uncomfortable”making major legislative changes so soon after the 2018 referendum. 

It seems like delay tactics – kind of put it off until maybe after the next election or something.

“I think it seems that that’s kind of maybe a strategic thing, because it’s kind of seen as a controversial issue,” Cairns said.

She recalls knocking on doors during the referendum campaign.

“So often, the thing that made people really feel they were going to vote yes… it was for people who needed terminations for medical reasons. Like, more than any other reason,” she said.

“And the fact that those women who need terminations for medical reasons are still traveling. It’s just so heartbreaking and so sad, and so horrible. We’re still exporting that problem to the UK. So nothing has changed for those people.

“I just think there’s this constant underestimation of the electorate in relation to issues like this. And when people have to go through that kind of prolonged suffering, I think it’s unforgivable.

“So it’s kind of a bittersweet anniversary, it’s like, it’s nice to think back on how progressive Ireland is, and can be, and we saw with marriage equality as well, but frustrating that we still then have a government who are like hanging back for some reason,” said Cairns. 

“I’ve always had this kind of complaint about Irish politics, that when we see those great changes in Ireland, like everyone being allowed to get married, it’s like the general public kind of dragging the government along,” she said.

Cairns said she would love to see the government take the lead in progressing change, particularly when it comes to repeal legislation.

“That’s our healthcare. So it shouldn’t be informed by Leo saying he feels reluctant or uncomfortable, like it’s not about how he feels, these are our health policies, they need to be informed by things like that independent review, that would just be ideal, in my opinion,” said Cairns. 

The independent review also raised concerns about not all maternity hospitals and GPs offering termination services. 

Cairns said it was “kind of concerning” that Health Minister Stephen Donnelly “doesn’t seem to be in charge in that way” in terms of ensuring the roll out of services nationwide.

“I think there was a lot of coverage around speculation as to whether he could win over the Cabinet on the repeal changes. And I think it just shows how unrepresentative the Cabinet is of the country, if that’s the case.

“And there’s things cited, like some ministers being concerned about the three-day waiting period – that’s something that has no basis in any kind of evidence or science or anything, and it’s really kind of paternalistic and concerning,” she added. 

Cairns said it was “worrying” to hear talk that the Cabinet needed to brought around to something that’s informed by an independent review around a health policy. 

“All of the changes that were recommended in that review, things around decriminalisation would help in terms of more GPs and hospitals being open to providing the service because at the moment they could be in fear of prosecution.”

She added: “There doesn’t seem to be the follow on actions that you’d expect from a minister of health that believes that women should have unrestricted kind of access to a health care service that’s essential.”

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