Sunday 22 September 2019

Make a positive change to help the women of Ireland

It is time to stop stigmatising women in crisis pregnancies and to start treating them with compassion, says Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

COMPASSION: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre) with ministers and Fine Gael members canvassing commuters for support of the repeal of the Eighth Amendment last week Photo: PA
COMPASSION: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (centre) with ministers and Fine Gael members canvassing commuters for support of the repeal of the Eighth Amendment last week Photo: PA

Leo Varadkar

It's difficult to truly put yourself in someone else's shoes. To imagine the distress they may be in, to envisage their internal turmoil, to fully appreciate the impact their circumstances may have on their life and that of their family.

Before you vote on Friday, I would urge you to put yourself in the shoes of a woman in crisis. That woman could be your daughter, your sister, your wife, or your best friend. Then ask yourself, how would you want her to be treated?

Irish people are compassionate and caring. We have shown ourselves to be open-minded and progressive, willing to confront some of the most difficult issues from our past. For too long, our society was characterised by judgment rather than understanding. Too many lives have suffered as a consequence; some women's lives have been lost. Friday's vote is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change that.

I don't believe any woman ever sets out wanting to have an abortion. It's an outcome most would prefer to avoid. Sometimes it is a devastating end to a much-wanted pregnancy.

In the 35 years since its insertion into the Constitution, despite its intentions, the Eighth Amendment has not saved lives, it has failed lives. It has not stopped Irish women having abortions. They take place every day - even if we don't see them - and they will continue to take place even if we would prefer not to think about them.

Between now and Friday, about 45 women will travel to Britain for an abortion, and a further 15 will take the abortion pill, bought online, without any medical advice or any discussion about alternative options. A No vote on Friday will not stop abortion in Ireland. It will only allow us to hide behind a fiction, turning our back on the women in our lives at the very moment when they need us most.

Like many people, my views on this topic have changed. Life experience has made me realise that this is not a black-and-white issue. In between the extremes on either side of the argument, there are shades of grey.

As Minister for Health, I was horrified by the case of Miss P, a woman who was clinically dead but on life-support because the child she was carrying was still alive. Doctors were uncertain as to whether they could take her off life support. Her family's wishes didn't matter. They looked at the Constitution rather than medical journals for guidance. It was decided in court. I am still haunted by that case. Today in Ireland, because of the Eighth Amendment, pregnant women must be on the brink of death before doctors can intervene.

Many readers may agree that we need to deal with the hardest of cases - the fatal foetal abnormalities, the cases of rape - but might struggle with the concept of terminations being available up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. The truth is that we cannot deal with the most difficult cases without voting Yes on Friday to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution.

Having rape or incest as a specific 'reason' for a termination is completely unworkable, as has been pointed out by several former attorneys general. Requiring a woman or young girl to somehow prove she had been raped within the confines of early pregnancy is not possible and would almost certainly risk re-traumatising the victim.

Today in Ireland, a 15-year-old girl who is raped and in pain cannot end her pregnancy, and anybody who helps her can be sent to prison for 14 years. So could she. Today in Ireland, the only option for this young rape victim is to continue with the pregnancy.

Under the Government's proposals, in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, a woman can make her own decision - a personal and private decision - whether to proceed with that pregnancy or not. It won't be on demand. You will need to see a doctor who will confirm the pregnancy is less than 10 weeks' gestation. You'll be offered counselling about alternatives and there will be a pause period for reflection.

After the 12-week point (which is 10 weeks after conception), a termination will only be permitted if the women's health or life is at serious risk. This must be certified by two doctors, one of whom must be an obstetrician. Even in these very difficult circumstances, some women may decide to risk their own health in order to go ahead with the pregnancy. That is a decision a woman should make herself, in consultation with her doctor, not a decision that should be made for her. These are not broad grounds. They reserve lawful abortion after the first trimester to only the most serious of cases. Twelve weeks is the limit in 18 other European countries like France, Germany, Spain and Italy. In Britain and the Netherlands it's much less restrictive at 24 weeks.

Terminations would also be possible in the heartbreaking cases where the baby will not survive outside the womb, where expectant parents have been told their much-wanted baby is not going to make it. Again, many couples may choose to continue with that pregnancy, and we will support them in doing so. For those who wish to end the pregnancy through a compassionate early delivery, with family and friends by their side, they should be able to do so here, in their own country.

Some have suggested that a Yes vote will lead to late term abortions. It is claimed that the Government, the medical profession, and the women of Ireland will conspire to abort healthy babies up to six months' gestation and beyond based on flimsy health grounds. I wonder who these women are, as I have certainly never met any of them.

The legislation clearly sets out that after 12 weeks of pregnancy, terminations will only be available on health grounds and if viability has not been reached. That means if the baby can survive outside the womb, it will be delivered early and offered all possible medical care.

There are only a few days left in this referendum campaign. Whatever the result, the Government will respect the democratic will of the people.

To those of you who are still unsure how to vote, I encourage you to focus on the facts. To focus on the reality that between 3,000 and 4,000 women will travel to Britain and beyond for a termination this year, and about 2,000 more will take pills they got online. To think of the couple who have to travel to Liverpool to compassionately end their much-wanted pregnancy.

We have ignored this for long enough. We can no longer hide our conscience behind the Constitution.

I want in particular to appeal to Irish men to think of the women in their lives - their wives, sisters and daughters.

We can help make a positive change so the women in our lives can deal with their crisis pregnancies here at home, not in a foreign country or alone without any medical help or advice.

It's time to put an end to the secrecy and the shame surrounding women in crisis pregnancies. To stop stigmatising women and start treating them with compassion. It's time we trusted women to make decisions about their own healthcare. If you agree, please vote Yes on Friday.

Sunday Independent

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