3 Day Oireachtas Committee on Abortion Begins Today

The Oireachtas committee is today gearing up for 3 days of meetings, featuring expert legal and medical groups, to discuss the issue of abortion in Ireland. Pro-choice and pro-life organisations will also have an opportunity to lobby their cause. The issue has been propelled back onto centre-stage following the death of Savita Halapannavar in November. It has been an extremely divisive issue in this country for decades and because of governments precariously tip-toeing around the subject it has inevitably not been comprehensively addressed.

Topics of debate in the Oireachtas will centre on the legal issues of abortions in Ireland, on the medical aspect of the issue and the morality surrounding it. The imperative aim of the 3 day intensive meetings is to clear up the grey areas surrounding the legal facets of the eligibility, or lack-thereof, of seeking an abortion in Ireland. The law now states that abortion is illegal in Ireland. In Ireland abortion is currently prohibited under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person’s Act 1861.

Under Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution the State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees to respect the mother in national laws. The 1861 Act puts women and doctors in fear of criminal prosecution regarding abortion. In the X case in 1992, the Supreme Court held that abortion was lawful in Ireland, if there was a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother. No legislation regulating that right was ever enacted, a fact regretted by the Supreme Court in its 1992 Judgment.

 Each day the committee will hear the arguments and evidences from the respective parties involved; today (08/01/13) the medical advisors will be heard in the Oireachtas. The committee will hear from the Department of Health and the Irish Medical Council in the morning. The second and third sessions will involve medical evidence from expert medical doctors from hospitals around the country. The fourth and final session will entail advice from Niall Behan, CEO of the Irish Family Planning Association, The Institute of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists and advice from Maternal Death Inquiry Ireland.

The Oireachtas will then hear evidence and advice regarding the legislation surrounding the issue of abortion in Ireland. The day will be a rigorous one because of the contentious debate around the legality of seeking an abortion and the contentious court cases that have rocked Ireland in the recent decades, most recently in 2010. Back in 2010 3 women went to the European Court of Human Rights with a complaint about the grey area surrounding the eligibility of seeking an abortion in Ireland. The 3 women had travelled to the UK to seek an abortion for reasons of health and/or well-being as it was unclear whether any of them were eligible for one in Ireland. The motion was brought to the ECHR over 2 years ago and the question remains why it was put on the back burner instead of being addressed there and then. The aims of the day will undoubtedly be to clear up the muddied waters and provide concise advice about further legislation.

The final day of the proceedings sees religious groups, pro-life groups and pro-choice groups have their say. Various Christian sects, the Methodists, Presbyterians, Church of Ireland and the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, take up the vast majority of the morning session, with the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland and Atheist Ireland (a very late addition) offered the chance of submitting advice. Atheist Ireland were only recently invited by the Health Committee to attend the session and a post on their website states that, “Ideally, there should be no need to hear any specifically religious or nonreligious ethical views, but if they are hearing religious ethical views, then they should also hear nonreligious ethical views.” The decision to invite the group will be a bone of contention for the other religious groups in attendance, as they see the moral landscape of the issue of abortion as primarily religious. The group hopes to put forward their views regarding the issue from a humanist and a secular perspective:        

 

Our policy is that society should address ethical issues based on human rights and compassion, and applying reason to empirical evidence, and not on religious doctrines; and that individual ethical decisions should where possible be made on the basis of personal autonomy and individual conscience, while not infringing on the rights of others… Also, as one example, Roman Catholic Cardinal Sean Brady has recently asked people to tell their public representatives that the right to life is conferred on human beings by ‘the creator’. We want to explain why we believe the Government should not legislate or regulate on the basis of imposing such theological ideas on citizens who do not share them.

 

Although the group rejects the general decision to seek advice from religious groups the Atheist population will be glad that they have been asked to contribute to this contentious debate.

The final 2 sessions of the day will encompass advice from pro-life and pro-choice groups, and will hear advice and evidence from the Director of Action on X, a group that have been actively campaigning for the government to legislate on this issue. The decision to split the days up into medical, legal and ‘moral’ is a telling one. It illustrates the tendency in this country to afford religious groups the sole right to moralise for the rest of us; the first day is medical, the second legal and the third ‘moral’. The group Atheist Ireland would contend that the moral landscape of the question should be addressed within the legal and medical framework, and should not be afforded to religious groups.

Enda Kenny recently said that Fine Gael remains a ‘pro-life’ political party. The majority of Fine Gael backbenchers maintain that Ireland will remain a country in which abortion is illegal but they face a backlash from the Irish public who were outraged when Savita Halappanavar died in November. The public show of solidarity with Savita’s husband and the general indignation that this could happen in our country in the 21st century was wholly apparent. If Fine Gael stubbornly insist upon a pro-life stance following the reaction of the public they look set to drop in popularity. Popularity among the coalitionists is low following the budget in December and this will only cause Fine Gael a further setback. However, if Labour manages to push through with their goals regarding abortion here in Ireland it might give them a much needed boost. Support for Labour is waning following their poor efforts to halt Fine Gael cutting benefits in the recent budget. 

Follow the proceedings as they happen at http://www.oireachtas.ie/ViewDoc.asp?fn=/documents/livewebcast/Web-Live.htm&CatID=83&m=o

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