Speech by Mattie McGrath TD on the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018

Dáil debates

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018: Second Stage

Speech by Mattie McGrath TD

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. The Bill we are due to “debate”, and I use the term very loosely, represents a moral, political and humanitarian catastrophe. It is now absolutely clear we have decided to anchor our understanding of human dignity in a culture of vicious political supremacy of the strong over the weak. We have done so fully aware that wherever legislation such as this is introduced, it soon generates a momentum that makes further liberalisation almost impossible to resist.

We have seen that process begin already. Yesterday morning the abortion lobbying and taxpayer funded National Women’s Council of Ireland sent all Members of the Oireachtas an email urging them to submit amendments deleting sections 5 and 6 from the Bill before us. These are the sections that deal with offences either by individuals or by corporate bodies or institutions. Let us be clear about what the National Women’s Council of Ireland finds so offensive. The very first line of section 5 states: “It shall be an offence for a person, by any means whatsoever, to intentionally end the life of a foetus”. According to this logic, it is a sign of intolerable restriction to have the Bill make any provision whatsoever for offences to be committed. The National Women’s Council of Ireland and its supporters clearly want the practice of abortion to be removed entirely from the scope of legal penalties. This is a scandal. It is also a clear sign that the provisions of this Bill will be absolutely resisted by abortion rights extremists.

I am sorry the Minister has left the Chamber. In his usual doublespeak, he pleaded with us, the Members of this House, to make life as easy as possible for him, and not to resist the Bill or seek to amend it. Despite this, he could not wait to hear my contribution, which tells us how tolerant he is. He sent a rather embarrassed Chief Whip to the Business Committee last week with a demand that we waive pre-legislative scrutiny on this Bill. I was shocked and I resisted that to the best of my ability as a member of the Business Committee on behalf of the Rural Independent Group. Yet, that very same morning, he was reported in the Irish Examineras saying there is a duty on all of us who are honoured enough to sit in the Dáil and Seanad to scrutinise and ask questions on the legislation. I would have thought that was a prerequisite for any legislation. We have had a pre-legislative scrutiny process for some time and it has proved very successful. On that issue, we absolutely agree we have to scrutinise and examine legislation, ask questions and put forward amendments, which is our duty. However, unlike the Minister, I believe that Bills of the nature and gravity of the one being proposed must be rigorously subjected to the parliamentary process of pre-legislative scrutiny. That is what the process is for and it ensures we avoid the pitfalls. His fear and his unwillingness to submit the abortion Bill to in-depth scrutiny speaks to an implicit acceptance that the Bill is fundamentally flawed on several levels. As I said, the people have spoken and he has a job of work to do, but why would he try to rush that, despite the fact some Members wanted to sit late tonight and tomorrow to rush it through? We must make haste slowly. It is very serious legislation. I cannot fathom why the Minister was afraid to submit this legislation to pre-legislative scrutiny. All summer was spent drafting it and building on the heads of the Bill, which were put before the people. Why would he not want to have in-depth scrutiny of this Bill, like many other pieces of legislation? We have had enough bad legislation and legislation with loopholes that is then brought before the courts and challenged constitutionally, as well as the other negative impacts of legislation which did not have proper impact analysis. I believe pre-legislative scrutiny is necessary.

This makes a mockery of authentic conscientious protection rights and it tramples over the many professional concerns that exist around the absence of ultrasound technology to determine gestational age. It makes a mockery of it, as GPs up and down the country know. They know how limited they are and how much pressure they are under, with the FEMPI cuts and the whole issue of GPs leaving the country. I will return to these issues shortly.

An exhaustive analysis performed by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service last year clearly showed that pre-legislative scrutiny has a “proven record of influencing a Bill’s content before it is entrenched, and providing a locus of guidance for parliamentarians, demonstrating its value as a significant contributor towards the development of better legislation.” Goodness knows, there are enough faults in the HSE and enough clamour and serious scandals of huge proportions, including the latest one concerning cervical cancer. Surely, for this sensitive legislation around healthcare for women, young and old, though mainly young, we would have pre-legislative scrutiny and ensure that every parliamentarian had a chance, so we would enact robust legislation that was not flippant. I cannot understand the Minister’s doublespeak when he is reported in the Irish Examineras saying he wants full and protracted scrutiny and, then, he sends the Chief Whip into the Business Committee to ask us to bypass or do away with pre-legislative scrutiny on this very important legislation. In light of that statement, it is impossible to tell why the Minister and the Government sought the waiver on pre-legislative scrutiny. The explanation might be that he wants his legislative trophy more than he wants good law. That question has to be put to him as that must be the true situation. We have had enough bad law for many years across our economy. Given we now have a system to scrutinise law, we should use it and not try to bypass it.

I want to be absolutely clear. To my mind, this is a Bill that ignores fundamental freedoms, annihilates the first principles of medicine and levies upon the conscience and purse of a nation unjust taxes to support it. We are all worn out at this stage from pre-budget lobbying and meetings, and we see how difficult it is and how scarce resources are in healthcare and across all walks of life, yet there is no problem with finance for this. People out there know all about it. There are people with cataracts waiting four and five years for treatment while they are going blind. People are waiting for hip operations and for orthodontic treatment for their children, there are adolescents who cannot get into CAMHS, despite the level of mental health pressures that exist, not to mention the trolley crisis. Those people know the real situation. However, to question this Bill, to seek to amend it or to seek parliamentary scrutiny of its provisions is to mark oneself out as an enemy of progress. I want to state I am no enemy of progress. We must listen to the people who have voted. However, if accepting the erosion of fundamental rights is “progress”, then I want no part of it. There is no doubt this Bill will live long in the memory as the chief political legacy of a Minister for Health and a Government that gleefully offered up the protection of the smallest and most vulnerable in return for their entry to a dehumanising and debasing ideological cartel.

There are widespread problems with the Bill. There is the terrifying definition of the unborn child as “an embryo or a foetus during the period of time commencing after implantation in the uterus of a woman and ending on the complete emergence of the foetus from the body of the woman”. Where does this definition or this understanding exist in the real world? Does anyone here seriously believe that this is not setting the legislative groundwork for late-term abortions? It could not be clearer to me. Of course it is. From the briefing the Minister gave yesterday, which I was unable to attend although my parliamentary assistant attended, I understand there is absolutely zero possibility of real and meaningful conscientious protection, either for medical personnel or for medical institutions, coming into force.

This is guaranteed to create a major conflict within the GP and hospitals system.

I worked very hard during the talks on the programme for Government, assisted by my staff and, indeed, my own daughter. I hoped to have a perinatal hospice service introduced. I hope there is as much zeal to support women who face a crisis. I want all supports necessary to help them keep their babies and to carry on with their pregnancies. Supports such as perinatal hospice care nationally were promised in the programme for Government but we have seen very little introduced in the two and a half years since the Government was formed. Also promised were housing supports for lone parents, supports for families with children with disabilities and improved maternity services, which are badly needed.

I salute the staff of the paediatrics ward in Tipperary who are receiving an award tomorrow night, as are maternity services staff. They are under huge pressure and they are very short-staffed. Nurses are leaving the service which cannot attract new recruits and that is having a hugely negative impact on what the hospitals do every day, notwithstanding their excellent track record.

Just last week, we heard about the huge extra costs faced by families of children with life-limiting conditions. Children with autism and many other health issues have little or no support. As a pro-life Deputy, I will continue to fight for these supports and hope the Minister and the Government will be open to supporting fully all women who need extra help to get through whatever crises they face.

From the briefing the Minister gave yesterday, however, the possibility of meaningful change looks like zero, which is guaranteed to create a major conflict with GPs and our hospital system. Regardless of the weasel-worded definition used in the Bill, the legislation will trample over the sincerely held belief of doctors who do not want to play any hand, act or part in the destruction of innocent life. Yesterday, we all received an email from Doctors for Conscience. It contained a copy of the letter sent to Mr. Fintan Foy, CEO of the Irish College Of General Practitioners, and was signed by 203 Irish medical doctors. It was not two, 12 or 50 but 203. Many more were afraid to sign because their contracts are up for renegotiation with the implicit threats that go with that. The email included the following:

We are writing to express our profound concern that the ICGP has not made the issue of freedom of conscience a central part of its consultation with GPs regarding the Government’s proposed new legislation on abortion. There is no question but that this is the standout issue for GPs and the ICGP board knows this to be the case.

I discussed this with the IMO last week during a pre-budget meeting. However, the IMO does not want to talk about it and wishes simply to take whatever diktat comes from the Minister and run with it. That is no solace to the hundreds of GPs who are fiercely conflicted about what is being foisted on them. The email continues:

The Minister for Health is tasking GPs with the provision of an abortion service without first asking GPs on the ground if they think their surgeries are an appropriate setting. Neither was the question asked in the recent ICGP online survey.

What are we afraid of? Why do we not deal with the real issues? We have issue after issue being foisted on GP practices. such as health care for the under sixes and under 12s, which already have queues out the door because hospital emergency departments are so full. New patients cannot be taken on by most GPs and people have to wait a week to eight days for an appointment. I salute GPs who are working under awful pressure. One of them is sitting behind me, namely, Deputy Michael Harty, who knows the pressures more than anyone. The pressure is greater on rural GPs whom we are trying to keep. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting my Topical Issue matter later on a rural practice in County Waterford in my own parish.

This question was not asked in the ICGP’s recent online survey. Why did it not ask? Is it afraid of getting the wrong answer? The Minister and Minister of State are no doubt fully apprised of recent online surveys, including the one on GPBuddy.iewhere 75% of the 936 registered GPs who took part were opposed to a GP-led abortion service. It was not 10%, 15% or 25%. It was 75% of the 936. Is that not a message? Nevertheless, the Government continues to bulldoze this along without any consultation or meaningful interaction with GPs.

Does this letter from more than 200 doctors not give the Minister cause for concern or pause for thought? Does it not suggest the need for pre-legislative scrutiny and a need to make haste slowly with this serious legislation? Does it not provide the Minister with a moment’s hesitation about the nature of what he proposes to force upon dedicated men and women who have given their professional lives to the Irish people and the Irish healthcare system? We see that 24-7 in rural GP practices where doctors live in the community and are part of it. Indeed, Deputy Harty was elected on the slogan “No doctor, no village”. That is very true. If the Minister cared to go out from the leafy suburbs to the country, he would see what goes on. It is wrong to treat professionals like GPs like this and to foist issues on them, of which this is the third or fourth in recent times, when they are suffering from financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, cuts of almost 40%. They have been decimated. Clearly, it has not given the Minister any pause. I beg the Minister and Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, to pause for reflection and to treat GPs, practice nurses and all other healthcare providers who have a conscientious objection with the respect and dignity they deserve having qualified, followed their vocations and provided decades of service.

It is horrifying that the Minister is even contemplating removing parental consent before a child obtains an abortion. I remember that we tried to bring up the age limit for children in the context of cyberbullying and everything else. This flies in the face of all that. As I understand it, the Minister did not rule this option out at the briefing yesterday. I ask if he will rule it out today, although he is not in the House to answer right now.

I could stand here and try to persuade the Minister that the very humanity of the unborn child should be reason enough to cry halt to this truly barbaric legislation. However, it is clear that such an approach would be utterly pointless. The Minister and his supporters have been totally captured by a vicious logic which pays no heed to the most vulnerable in our society, namely, the unborn child. If such heed had been paid, this legislation would not be as desperate as it is. The Minister has closed his ears and eyes to the reality of the unborn child as a member of the human family, fully deserving of our protection and our care. I will propose various amendments to this Bill, just like many other Deputies who indicated that point to the Minister at the briefing yesterday. I hope we will have time in the House to deal with those, notwithstanding the eagerness to rush this through and to bypass pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope we will have a proper discussion and that the amendments will be considered and not scoffed at as coming from backward people.

I will continue to try to sanitise the brutal tool that we have before us and to give some help to the many doctors and the hundreds of thousands of people who voted no in the referendum. We cannot just forget about them because one side won. While it is clear that side won, a sizeable proportion of our population are very concerned. Many of those who voted yes did so with huge reluctance. I have been contacted by quite a number recently, as have we all. They did not expect this to be as serious or for the package to be as it is. Many of them will be horrified when they see what the Minister and Government have done with the mandate provided. It will be a salutary lesson in respect of future referenda, legislation and elections. People voted in good faith, as they always do when they go into the polling booth.

We must have respect, however, not only for the people who elected us, but also the people who elected other people and the people who voted for other situations. I look forward to debating this under the stewardship of Deputy Harty in the Committee on Health and back here on the floor of the Dáil. I hope we will have a meaningful and respectful debate and that we will be able to pass some amendments.

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