Tuesday 25 June 2019

I cried as I waited for Dáil to legislate for compassion

'Nothing has changed since the introduction of Daly’s bill last February, and nothing will change for women if this bill is not passed.'
'Nothing has changed since the introduction of Daly’s bill last February, and nothing will change for women if this bill is not passed.'
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

I had not realised what the sound of an apology could do. I cried in the Dáil gallery on Thursday last, alongside two other parents who have endured the journey of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).

I was braced for the usual slurs, rage, disrespect and inaccuracies to be fired across the floor. In June 2013, the debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy (PLDP) Bill descended into farce, with TDs wandering in and out from the bar until 5am, 'Lapgate' being the low point. Last year, I endured the disdain made of Clare Daly TD's amendment to that PLDP Act to include terminations for fatal foetal abnormality. It gave religious zealots a chance to question the credibility of women who had been handed the tragic diagnosis from an expert obstetrician. The Taoiseach even drew on anecdotes from his Mayo neighbours to support his opposition.

Last Thursday, after Clare Daly gave her robust opening argument, it was Minister for Health Simon Harris who responded. The usual Fine Gael platitudes were soon overtaken with, what seemed to me, genuine feeling, as he emphasised that "only the heartless could fail to be moved" by the plight of women having to leave the country.

Much of Harris's address was based on the UN decision in Amanda Mellet v Ireland, to which Ireland has 180 days to respond. It has taken 14 years for fatal foetal abnormality to be shown any respect by a Government party. Simon Harris put his sorrow on record and apologised to Amanda Mellet for the "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".

I waited for Harris to introduce his doubts. He did not. Instead, he said he was amongst the 80pc of the population who want to see a repeal of the Eighth Amendment for FFA, that he shared Deputy Daly's views and he was not opposed to the bill. But he could not support it due to the advice of Attorney General (AG) Máire Whelan.

Chief Whip Regina Doherty told us how she found the AG's advice compelling, as this time she was sitting at the Cabinet table and heard it first hand. She did not share it directly with us. New Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell said, as her voice quivered, that she also could not support the bill on the Attorney General's (AG) advice. Both women, however, stated passionately that they would support a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Each TD, including Fiona O'Loughlin, John Halligan, Niall Collins, Thomas Pringle, Kathleen Funchion, Catherine Martin (also on behalf of three Social Democrats), spoke calmly, with emotion, leaving the political football outside the chamber. But the constitutional goal posts had already been moved to suit Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin. Clare Daly made the point that Fianna Fáil's recent property rights bill was deemed unconstitutional but found a way through.

The solemn tone was interrupted by Sinn Féin TD Louise O'Reilly, who raised the stakes, delivering her ire directly at Simon Harris in an impassioned plea to support legislation that will prevent at least two women per week from "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment. I found the strange atmosphere of respect overwhelming. It was consoling to hear cross-party members agree with each other.

The stumbling block is the Attorney General's advice. It is the same as it was last year, and is still a secret. As anybody with a modicum of legal knowledge knows, only the Supreme Court can interpret whether legislation is in breach of the Constitution or not. Article 40.3.3 is specific about balancing rights between the mother and the unborn, "as far as practicable". The Supreme Court found that the Attorney General's advice was wrong in 1992 on the X case. Why can it not decide on this one? And have a referendum if its conclusion is ad idem with the AG? Sadly, it is only her opinion that will prevent Fine Gael supporting this much-needed, overdue legislation. And it could be years before another bill is introduced.

The opportunity to introduce a private members' bill is a lottery. Nothing has changed since the introduction of Daly's bill last February, and nothing will change for women if this bill is not passed. Figures from one hospital indicate the level of suffering - in the Rotunda last year, 71 women had a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. Of those, 49 women left the country - that is 98 parents and families affected by the Government's refusal to sanction treatment in Ireland.

A public apology is nice of Minister Harris. But it is not enough. Harris was only 14 years old in 2002 when I first brought the issue of FFA to the attention of Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney, before the 2002 referendum, so that it could be comprehended in the wording. My own sons were 10 and 12.

It is not Simon Harris who needs to apologise. Micheál Martin was the Minister for Health at the time. The Progressive Democrats sat on the fence. Enda Kenny became leader of Fine Gael after the 2002 election. Those two men have been stalling this issue for too long - they need to stop hiding behind the youth of their party members and legislate for compassion.

Irish Independent

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