The chairwoman of a review into the State’s abortion law has rejected claims from a Fine Gael TD that her recommendations for change would result in a legal challenge.
Barrister Marie O’Shea told the Oireachtas health committee that, on the contrary, failing to implement the changes she has recommended could result in legal challenges and the taoiseach of the day issuing a fresh apology to women.
In a report submitted last month, Ms O’Shea called for the decriminalisation of doctors, the removal of the mandatory three-day waiting period to access termination medication, new guidelines on conscientious objection and the reconsideration of the rules around accessing an abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
During Wednesday’s committee session, Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan said he believed there would be a legal challenge against what was proposed by the review, carried out three years after the State’s abortion regime came into operation.
“It will be decided on the basis of whether or not this changes the legislation,” he said of any challenge. “So I would say caution, be careful. Let’s try to make sure that we make available the services that were envisaged in all such situations and circumstances before we start to change it.”
Mr Durkan said he was making the comment as a “politician who has to go before the electorate every so often”.
Ms O’Shea disagreed with his view, adding: “If you don’t do anything, I think it is only a question of time before there is a repeat of Mellet vs Ireland, and Whelan vs Ireland and the taoiseach standing up in the Dáil making an apology and paying a sum of money to people.”
Amanda Mellet and Siobhán Whelan were forced to travel the UK for abortions after a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. The United Nations’ human rights committee found against Ireland in their cases because of the obligation to travel for healthcare services. The State was ordered to pay the women €30,000 each.
Ms O’Shea also told TDs that the chief medical officer had confirmed to her that there is “no medical reason” for the three-day waiting period before an abortion. She said there was also no legal reason for its existence.
Responding to Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane, Ms O’Shea said it has transpired that during research for the review, women “almost universally” said they did not believe there was a need for the waiting period.
Mr Cullinane said there is “political pressure on all of us to act on your report” and “in my view, your recommendations stand on their own merits”.
Asked by Fianna Fáil Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee if the three-day wait was “stigmatising”, Ms O’Shea said she “would totally agree”.
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said the recommendation to remove the mandatory waiting period had “raised the most eyebrows”.
He asked Ms O’Shea if she had spoken to any women who went through the waiting period and decided to go ahead with the pregnancy. Ms O’Shea said she had not. Mr Tóibín said the review had not investigated “any women who took the three-day wait period as an opportunity to change their mind”.
Ms O’Shea told the committee that “courage and leadership” are needed from the Coalition regarding the abortion laws. Her call came after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would be “reluctant and uncomfortable” to make significant changes to the current regime. Other Fine Gael Ministers are understood to have similar concerns.
Meanwhile, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said on Wednesday that the Oireachtas health committee would examine all the recommendations made by the review. He acknowledged that “certainly there may very well have been issues that people could not foresee in terms of the actual operation of the legislation”.
“There will be people who will have views on this and people will want to go before the committee and give their perspectives on it. And certainly I will give it very serious consideration,” he told RTÉ radio.
A People Before Profit Bill which would provide for the abolition of the three-day waiting period for an abortion passed second stage in the Dáil on Wednesday evening.
Government TDs were given a free vote, with the Private Members’ Bill passed by 67-64. There were eight abstentions.
The Bill, which was put forward by People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith, provides that the three-day wait to access abortion medication would be removed, fully decriminalises abortion and removes the existing 14-year prison sentence that applies to medical professionals if they perform abortions outside the law.
The Government had tabled a one-year timed amendment on it, effectively stalling its progress through the Oireachtas for 12 months, which was defeated.
The PBP Bill will now be further examined at committee stage.