Dáil statement by Joan Burton on the Eighth Amendment Referendum Bill

09 March 2018

Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille seo chun Airteagal 40 den Bhunreacht a leasú agus téacs nua a chur ann ionas gur féidir socrú a dhéanamh le dlí chun foirceannadh toirchis a rialáil.  Beidh cead ag gach aon duine a bhfuil vótáil acu vótáil.  Ba mhaith liom go mbeadh gach aon duine ábalta vótáil agus go mbeidh vótáil i bhfábhar an Bhille seo.

As we move to pass the Bill, we pass the responsibility for the decision from the Chamber, assuming, as I am confident it will be, that it is enacted, to the people and each citizen who is registered to vote.  The Labour Party will speak to people to seek to persuade them to cast their ballots in favour of the proposed change to Article 40 of the Constitution.  We will ask them to substitute for Article 40.3.3o the amendment the Minister has proposed.  I join those who hope the debate will be a concerned one.  It is an important and vital debate which must be a concerned one which will produce a good outcome for the people, in particular women.  That is why I want to see a “Yes” vote.

Yesterday, we put on a brave celebration to mark International Women’s Day.  We celebrated women who had fought for the right to vote, among others, for women 100 years ago, including the right to control their own fertility.  While we, rightly, celebrated the achievements and legacy of the women concerned, we should be honest that we, the women of Ireland, inherited a republic of misogyny and cruelty and a Dáil and a Seanad which remain cold places for women and girls.  In 1983 the Labour Party was very clear that the eighth amendment was the wrong one for the Constitution and the people, in particular women.  Instead of doctors and midwives providing the best maternal care for women, we have had instead decisions on women’s care placed in the hands of lawyers and the courts.  In fact, the notes the Oireachtas Library and Research Service has provided show that in the 35 years since the eighth amendment was made, court case after court case has intruded on the most private, sensitive and, often, risky parts of many people’s lives, namely, when they are having babies.  Instead of the process being dominated by midwives and doctors, it has become the province of lawyers, which is not good for anybody.  In the broader consideration of this issue let us put women first, trust them and ensure we provide the best maternal care.  It must be clear that when a woman is pregnant and proceeding to have a baby, we want to see a successful outcome.

 Can we look at what has been happening in this country and how we have dealt with this issue?  In some ways, the best thing to do is look at the work of some of our writers, including Edna O’Brien and other young women who ended up having to leave Ireland for pagan England because it was only there that they could resolve their issues.  That is what a lot of their literature has been about.  I have never been aware of a situation where abortion has been a happy issue for anyone, just as the loss of a baby in a miscarriage is a very unhappy event for anyone who has experienced it.  The debate must, therefore, be realistic about the lives of women and their partners and couples and what actually happens.  In that context, I refer to the decision of the committee which I absolutely support on a 12-week provision.  It is, in fact, quite conservative.  Some in the media have allowed themselves to be carried away and indicated that this will turn Ireland upside down.  This is the country which sent tens of thousands of young women and girls to England, either when they were pregnant or as soon as they had left the Magdalen laundries or other institutions.  By the way, priests met them off the boat, as did people from various religious societies to see if they could persuade them to turn back.

  During the years I have talked to many people who did what one could only have expected them to do in the circumstances, which was to get the boat to pagan England.  In those days it was a boat for the most part.  They began again lives which had been interrupted completely and, in many cases, destroyed by what an authoritarian Catholic Church, together with the Oireachtas, had visited on women as the standards acceptable in holy Catholic Ireland.  That does not mean that there were not people in holy Catholic Ireland who were not sympathetic and caring, but they always seemed to be outnumbered by those who placed a religious fatwa on those whose sexual behaviour was deemed to be unacceptable, with reference to the norms of the Catholic Church.  In a way, that is why the revelations of clerical abuse and other such issues were so shocking and continue to shock.  They were so out of line with the presentation of the Republic.  We must, therefore, be clear that the 12-week proposal is a conservative measure.  That is why we should have a great deal of confidence in proposing it as an appropriate provision in the vast majority of cases in which people want, for their own reasons, to have a termination.

Last week in my constituency I spoke to a small group of approximately 20 people, together with a local doctor and a lawyer, to discuss what was meant by the various proposals and what might happen.

What stood out for me was that many older people, probably past their child-rearing days, did not really understand how much medical technology and practice had changed.  Many who hear about an early termination tend to think about a procedure such as dilation and curettage or a rather invasive surgical process.  In recent years, certainly over the past decade, we have witnessed the development and widespread availability, without issue, of the morning-after pill in chemist shops all over Ireland.  I was a member of this House when the proposal in that regard was first made.  As with married couples having access to contraception and divorce and many other issues, people who were negative about social change really felt and forecast that the sky would fall in.  It was felt that if we brought in divorce, all the daddies in Ireland would leave their children.  Members will remember the poster stating “Hello Divorce … Bye Bye Daddy”.  It was believed that if women got the right to control their own fertility and gained access to contraception, they would suddenly go mad.  It was not believed that we would never have sex again but that no more babies would be born in Ireland.  We have one of the highest fertility rates in Europe.  Even counting all the people who go to England to have a termination — it is not an absolutely exact science — all the evidence suggests we have a relatively low abortion or termination rate by European standards.  If we get better maternal provision, as proposed and in respect of which I welcome the observations made by the Minister on providing free contraception services, we should end up with services of better quality that will help people to make decisions and result in better outcomes for families.

Since the technology of the abortion pill was introduced, girls have been taking it, whether in toilets in colleges or in their own bedrooms.  We know that taking abortion pills is relatively safe but there are those who suffer from medical complications and who may be at risk of infection, albeit comprising a very small proportion.  We need to ensure they have medical help available and, in particular, aftercare, because many of those young women will want to have a baby in later years.  We will want them to be able to do so successfully when that is what they want.

For most people, pregnancy is a happy experience.  For a small but significant number of couples, however, it ends in spontaneous miscarriage.  Everybody knows that.  Medical science is seeking to advance its knowledge in this regard and reduce the incidence.  For an even smaller number of people, pregnancy ends in a termination or an abortion.  For many couples and individual women nowadays, the problem is actually getting pregnant and holding on to the baby.  Considering the variety of experiences people have, we have to provide better care for women and couples.  The care should reflect the complexity of our lives as they are now lived.  While we are aware of our history, we really need to consider what is available now and how we can best address the needs of pregnant women.

As everybody has said here this morning, we have abortion for women in Ireland but it takes place abroad, mostly in England or, as I said before, “pagan England”, as it was often vilified in earlier decades.  Much of the relevant information is not really available during people’s education in secondary school.  It is a sine qua non that if we agree to change the eighth amendment and, as I hope, provide for legislative powers in the Oireachtas, we will provide for better sex education and relationship education in schools in order that the pupils, when they become adults, will be able to decide what is best for them and their families.

It is important that there be aftercare.  If a person who has a termination when relatively young does not have the medical care she requires, particularly if she picks up an infection, for example, her chance of having a baby may be significantly reduced in later years.  We need to examine this as a whole-of-life issue for many women and families.

I ask those who intend to vote on this to consider some of what we know.  Almost everybody, in his or her wider circle of friends and family, knows a couple or individual who has experienced a fatal foetal diagnosis.  At times as a public representative, I have talked to people about very sad issues such as where and how they would be able to find grave space for a baby and whether they – they are usually in their 30s – could find a space where they could be buried with their baby when they die.  We should not put them through what is, for them, often casual torture.  We need to rethink how people are supported and helped.

Consider the case of the 14 year old Ms X.  People suggested she be prevented from travelling out of this country.  Would anyone like to see his or her 14 year old forced to carry a pregnancy to term if it resulted from rape?  Particularly since I lived in Africa, I have not believed the Catholic Church itself believes she should be.  Most Catholics do not believe she should.  For instance, I do not believe Catholics for Choice in America believes so but one of the peculiarities of our involvement in this cul-de-sac of argument on the eighth amendment is that we have been forced into such places.  It is absolutely appropriate and fitting that we now move away from the era of the X case.  We must do so with the will of the people, however, and that is why we need to talk to people and respect their views and different stories.  It is such a private and personal issue.  Ultimately, we must ask the people to make the best decision they can make, mostly for women of childbearing age but also for their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and wider family.  Their views must be taken into consideration.  This is what I believe people did in voting in the marriage equality referendum.  It made it a much more collective debate.  We sat down and thought, as a society, not about what might be perfect but about what would provide the best outcome for the maximum number of people.  We addressed that according to a rights framework.

100 ago, the suffragettes simply wanted to end the prospect of fertile women ending up having had 16 or 20 pregnancies and to allow women to control their own fertility.

Now, 100 years later, we are moving to provide for women to control their fertility here.  We know that women can access terminations but must do so abroad.  In the context of this debate I remember Deputy Maureen O’Carroll who lived for much of her life on Kirwan Street in Stoneybatter and later Finglas, on Dublin’s northside.  During the adoption debates in the early 1950s she was one of the first people to consider the situation of children who would end up in institutions.  She was also very far seeing in wanting to end the status of illegitimacy.  Looking at the long story, I hope that when people come to vote that they will say “Yes” to change and support the proposals in this Bill.


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