Friday 13 December 2019

'Somewhat offensive' to suggest Irish women would choose to terminate after disability diagnosis - Health Minister

Ireland abortion laws
Ireland abortion laws

Denise Calnan and Breda Heffernan

Health Minister Simon Harris said he believes it is "somewhat offensive" to suggest that Irish women would choose to terminate a pregnancy due to a diagnosis of a disability.

The Health Minister made his comments this morning after Cabinet ministers voted unanimously last night to hold a referendum asking voters if they want to repeal the Eighth Amendment which gives equal status to a mother and her unborn child.

Speaking on RTE Radio One's Morning Ireland, Minister Harris said he finds it "really difficult" to discuss the charge that women would choose to terminate a pregnancy if they received a diagnosis of a disability.

The discussion comes days after Pro-Life campaign groups suggest that proposed changes to the Eighth Amendment would lead to the birth of fewer children with Down Syndrome.

"I find it really, really difficult to discuss this," Minister Harris said.

"I've heard from parents of children with Down Syndrome in the last few days saying, 'please do not manipulate or utilise my children to suit your political argument on this very sensitive matter'.

"I do not believe women in this country adopt that approach when they have a diagnosis of a child with a disability," Mr Harris continued.

"I take very seriously the views of Dr Boylan, Dr Peter Boylan, and the Institute of Gynaecology and Obstetricians in relation to this matter regarding the practicalities of testing for this situation.

"It is important to say that the Oireachtas Committee explicitly voted to exclude disabilities as a grounds for abortion in this country, and that differed from the Citizens' Assembly in relation to that situation.

"I think it is somewhat offensive to suggest women in Ireland are seeking abortions for that reason.

"I do think it misses point. Minister McGrath has spoken very passionately about this as Minister for Disabilities.. if you look at countries like the Netherlands, where it is perceived to be a liberal situation in relation to abortion, if you look at the number of people born with Down Syndrome in that country each and every year.

"We are talking about our citizens, and our citizens with Down Syndrome. And I have no wish to use them as some sort of homogeneous group to suit any political narrative on a very sensitive issue.

"Everyone, including citizens with Down Syndrome, has the right to have their vote on this sensitive matter. Nobody has the right to manipulate or own their viewpoint. They are citizens of this country and have the right to their own views and the right to express them."

The minister also said he is taking the "unusual step" of publishing a summary of the Attorney General's advice, and is also briefing the opposition parties to "share with them the rationale behind the government's decision".

He said he is hoping to finalise the wording of the referendum over the next month and said the provision included would not be an "outlier".

"There are already provisions in the constitutional law, it won't be an outlier. It's not unusual," he added.

Minister Harris said he will publish the general scheme "around the end of March, start of April" so citizens will have the report in advance of a vote at the end of May.

"I hope to go back to the Cabinet at the end of February to update them on my thinking and to give the public a further update as well," he added.

Meanwhile, a group of parents of children with Down Syndrome have said they “will not be silenced” in the run-up to the abortion referendum.

Members of the Disability Voices for Life joined the Save the 8th campaign to launch a nationwide billboard campaign.

Michael O’Dowd, whose son Conor (23) has Down Syndrome, said: “We would not have felt obliged to speak out were it not for the relentless campaign from some quarters telling us to remain silent.

“This past week, it has felt like our existence is inconvenient for some supporters of the abortion referendum, and that they would rather we went away and were quiet.”

Last week Down Syndrome Ireland released a statement saying the use of the image of little girl with Down Syndrome on pro-life campaign pamphlets was “disrespectful to both children and adults with Down Syndrome and their families”. It also said people with Down Syndrome “should not be used as an argument for either side of this debate”.

Mr O’Dowd, a past board member of Down Syndrome Ireland, said there are differing views on this issue within the organisation.

“I’m a member of Down Syndrome Ireland. I’ve sat on the board in the past. There are very different views in Down Syndrome Ireland...but I won’t be silenced,” said Michael.

When contacted by today, a spokesperson for Down Syndrome Ireland said they had no further comment to make.

Joseph Cronin (6), from Buncrana, Co Donegal, is featured on a new nationwide billboard campaign. In a statement read out on her behalf at this morning’s launch, Joseph’s mother Caitriona said people like him “disappear at astonishing and cruel rates” in countries with legal abortion.

“We want people to see Joseph for what he is - a smart, adorable, funny little boy who has a right to life here in Ireland when in so many other countries that right to life has been taken away.”

Online Editors

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