Speech by Brendan Howlin on Referendum Bill to repeal the 8th amendment

20 March 2018

“Our Opportunity to change an Amendment that fulfilled the worst fears of those who opposed it and never fulfilled the dreams of those that supported it”

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD, Leader of the Labour Party,  on Thirty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution Bill.

My party’s support for this proposal is well known.  We supported it at the All Party Committee and we support it today. 

I am pleased that on this truly important matter of social policy for our country, that Labour speaks with one clear and unified voice.

I will today, if I may, address a number of the arguments I’ve seen made against the proposal, largely outside the House.

But let us be honest too. This is not a pro-choice amendment. That is not the nature of the discussion that took place at the Citizens Assembly or the Oireachtas Committee.

The proposal before us, and I accept that the 12 week recommendation is integral to the proposal – I do not shy away from that – is what I would call a ‘hard cases’ proposal.

It arises from a widely held acceptance that the 8th amendment does not afford adequate protection to the lives and health of women and that there are cases and instances where the termination of a pregnancy is the compassionate and right thing to do.

I refer of course to the tragedy of fatal foetal abnormalities, pregnancy arising from cases of rape and incest and cases that impact upon the health of women.

It is critical to recall that the reason the Committee achieved the level of agreement that it did is because, after detailed and careful consideration of the issue, it could see no practical way to address these issues without allowing for cases of abortion up to 12 weeks.

That proposal came about because it was and remains the only way of addressing these hard cases.

Any other approach – to prove rape or incest for example, would be impossible and indeed unacceptable when once again policemen and lawyers would move in, where doctors and medical practitioners should be the people assisting the women at a time of distress.

I have a lot of respect for the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney,   I do not doubt his own sincerity in struggling with this issue.

But I think it is instructive that he has been unable to answer his own question about any alternative approach to this issue.

Nor do I think that the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the Leader of Fianna Fáil in particular would have arrived at the positions they did if there was a viable alternative approach.

And because I know that that is true that I reject the argument that politicians cannot be trusted with this issue if this proposal is to succeed.

That was the spurious argument made in 1983. 

I believe the real position is the exact opposite. 

Politicians no more than any other citizens struggle with this issue and act in accordance with their consciences. 

If afforded the responsibility of legislating for this issue I am confident that we will do so in accordance with our best beliefs, the balance of advice afforded to us by medical experts and in the best interests, as we perceive it, of our Republic.

I share the ambition of the Taoiseach that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. 

As the Minster 25 years ago responsible for the legalisation liberalising the law on contraception, I welcome the proposal from the Minister for Health to expand access to contraception.

But I recognise too that abortion takes place in this country already- the abortion pill is perhaps the transformative medical disruption since the last referendum.

It is a fact that cannot be ignored, that many Irish women import abortion pills and take them in their own homes.

That is illegal as the law now stands – does anyone seriously suggest that we now set about arresting, prosecuting and jailing all the women who have imported or taken these pills.

Some extremists might favour that course of action. Most Irish people would recoil at the prospect.

It is not a choice between the perfect abortion free world of the 8th amendment and a liberal abortion regime. 

The perfect world of the 8th amendment never existed.  It was a cop out, perhaps for many a well-intentioned cop out, but a cop out nonetheless. 

And in being so it prevents this nation addressing this issue in the manner we might otherwise have done. Others I’m afraid would like us to look away, pretend that this is not happening in Ireland.

For them there is no abortion in Ireland – that happens somewhere else – not our responsibility – our consciences are clear.

But the truth is that Irish women travel every day to the U.K. and elsewhere to avail of abortion facilities.

It happened before 1983 and every day since.

Contrary to the suggestion of some, what the All-party Oireachtas committee proposed does not put Ireland among the cohort of the most liberal abortion regimes in Europe.

Rather it puts us in the sensible mainstream – a point informed by our belated recognition of the challenges women face on an ongoing basis. 

And I don’t think it is an accident that we are discussing this issue now when we have come to realise that the manner in which we have respected and treated women historically, is far from what it should have been.

I read last week of comments made by the Minister for Social Protection on the issue.  I don’t believe she intended to do this but a clarification I think is required.

Whatever people feel about the outcome of this referendum, whether they are satisfied or not, I think this referendum is a one in a generation opportunity to address this issue for a new generation.

Were we to lose for instance, those of us supporting this proposal, having made the argument that a new generation were entitled to have their say on this issue, would have to accept the outcome as resolving this issue for quite some time.

I make that point for the avoidance of complacency.  This is our opportunity to change an amendment that fulfilled the worst fears of those that opposed it and never fulfilled the dreams of those that supported it.

And if may be I conclude with remarks made by my former colleague, Dick Spring, speaking in this equivalent debate thirty five years ago or so. 

Opposing the Bill he said:

“If this clause is inserted in our Constitution, then that document will enshrine an attitude to women which verges on contempt.”

Ireland was a very different place in 1983 – the Ireland of 2018 has faced major problems and issues and recognised the dark recesses of our past – particularly this nations treatment of women. 

I believe that we now must face the issue of abortion- as an issue for us to settle for our people, on our soil, with compassion, understanding and empathy.

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