ABORTION REMAINS ONE of the most contentious and divisive issues in Irish society and at the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children this week it was no different.

Though three days of hearings on how the government should go about legislating for the X Case were calm, tolerant, informative, interesting and even revelatory in some parts there was no denying that there was some stark differences of opinion.

The committee, which based itself in the Seanad chamber for the three days, heard from medical and legal experts before advocacy groups and the churches came in to have their say on the government’s decision to legislate for the Supreme Court ruling in the X Case 20 years ago.

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To mark the 16th Anniversary of the C Case ruling in Ireland by the European Council of Human Rights (ECHR), a group of activists and artists, led by students from NCAD performed a collection of C Case Christmas Carols outside the GPO in Dublin this afternoon. Artist Siobhan Clancy said: “Legislation on X is long overdue”.  (Pic: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland)

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A Government backbencher has appealed to fellow male TDs to listen very carefully to their female relatives in the debate on abortion.

Labour Dublin South East TD Kevin Humphreys made the call as he said “we’re here talking today about a women’s issue with very few women in this House. And I think it’s time we allowed women to make decisions about their own health.”

Mr Humphreys said his views on the issue were influenced during the 1983 referendum when he was asked to give a number of women in his housing estate a lift to the polling station. Their husbands wouldn’t drive them to the polling station “because they weren’t happy with the way their wives were voting. That has always had a big effect on me since then”.

Appealing to his male colleagues, he called on them to “look and listen very carefully to your wives, your daughters, your sisters, because the legislation and regulation we put through here will deeply affect them and the next generation”.

Mr Humphreys was speaking during the ongoing Dáil debate on the report of the expert group on the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the A, B and C versus Ireland case. He said it was a case again of “men articulating a position on women and their health I find it very difficult to stomach”.

Full article by MARIE O'HALLORAN here

 
 
The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers will today assess the Irish government’s action plan on the implementation of abortion law.

This action plan has been designed to address the judgement in 2010 in the case of he A, B And C vs Ireland whereby the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland had violated the human rights of a woman who had been unable to determine whether or not she qualified for a lawful abortion.

The government presented the new action plan outlining how it will implement this legally-binding judgment following an expert group report on abortion. The action plan will be assessed by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, the political governing body of the European human rights authority, which is meeting in Strasbourg today.

Ireland’s human rights watchdog, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) today welcomed the action plan promise to ensure that the judgment is “implemented expeditiously”, which the Council claims will require speedy reform of Ireland’s “wholly outmoded” abortion laws.

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SECOND OPINION: At last women who give birth in Irish hospitals may have at least one of their human rights respected and vindicated. The Report of the Expert group on the Judgment in A, B and C v Ireland says that legislation to regulate access to lawful termination of pregnancy in Ireland is “constitutionally, legally and procedurally sound”.

The State must “provide effective and accessible procedures to establish a woman’s right to an abortion as well as access to such treatment”.

Maternal mortality rates are often quoted by anti-abortion campaigners to show that new legislation is not needed because Ireland’s maternity services are among the best in the world. These rates are meaningless when used to support an anti-abortion stance.

A 2012 analysis of maternal mortality in European perinatal health surveillance systems, including Ireland, shows that current data are insufficient for comparison between countries, because the tiny numbers and statistical variability from year to year are difficult to interpret.

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When I argued a case challenging Ireland's ban on abortion before the European Court of Human Rights in 2009, I told the story of my client, "Ms. C," who had been battling cancer when she became pregnant. Ms. C's doctors in Ireland, where abortion is illegal and lifesaving abortion is largely unavailable, refused to provide her with even basic information about the risk that continuation of pregnancy posed to her life, and so she had no option but to travel to England to obtain an abortion.

The human rights court found this to be a clear violation of my client's rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and in 2010 demanded that Ireland reform its abortion laws. The case was considered a major victory for women.

But the victory exists only on paper, as is clear from the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar. Last month Halappanavar, 31, died from a pregnancy-related blood infection after doctors in Ireland refused to perform an abortion. According to her husband, as Halappanavar's health deteriorated, she had begged doctors for medically necessary treatment. Even after her doctors acknowledged that there was no chance her fetus would survive, they refused to terminate the pregnancy as long as they could detect even the faintest fetal heartbeat. Halappanavar slipped into a coma from which she never recovered.

Full article by Julie F. Kay here
 
 
The expert group report on abortion arose from a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in 2005 by three women, alleging that restrictions on abortion in Ireland were in breach of their human rights.

One of the women was in acute distress. She lived in poverty and had four children already, all of whom were in care. She was attempting to reunite her family when she became pregnant accidentally. She felt she could not possibly cope with a fifth child, nor with the pregnancy. She could not get an abortion in Ireland, where, irrespective of her circumstances, she risked penal servitude for life. She went to Britain, where she had an abortion.

Another of the three women had been in treatment for cancer for three years and she too became pregnant unintentionally. Medical tests were contraindicated during the early stage of her pregnancy. She was unable to get clear medical advice and feared that her pregnancy would lead to a recurrence of her cancer. She, too, felt obliged to go to Britain for an abortion. The third case was less clear-cut.

The third and first cases were dismissed on technical grounds but on the case concerning the woman with cancer, it was found that the absence of clear guidelines in Ireland for when abortion was permissible was a breach of human rights. It was this ruling which led to the expert group report published yesterday.

Full article by Vincent Browne here

 
 
The Government will act “speedily” to implement legislation to provide limited access to abortion if that recommendation from the expert group report is accepted by Cabinet, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin has said.

The report says legislation for limited abortion consistent with the Supreme Court ruling in the X case is required after the European Court of Human Rights judgment on the ABC cases.

Mr Howlin insisted the Coalition would not be the seventh administration to fail to act on the 1992 Supreme Court judgment on the X case. The report will be discussed by Cabinet on Tuesday.

“We have an expert group now to tell us in very considered detail how that is to be done and I have no doubt that this Government will act very speedily in a measured, calm way to provide for that instruction from Supreme Court.”

He said he hoped a “calm, considered, comprehensive” debate would begin in the Dáil next week, “and very speedily thereafter the Government will come to its own decisions in terms of drafting legislation and presenting that to the Oireachtas”. He was speaking on RTÉ’s This Week programme.

According to newspaper reports today, the expert group set up to deal with how the State deals with the issue of lawful abortions says legislation for the limited provision of abortion is required to make the State complaint with the European Court of Human Rights ruling in the ABC case.

Reports say the expert group set up to deal with how the State deals with the issue of lawful abortions says legislation for the limited provision of abortion is required to make the State compliant with the European Court of Human Rights ruling in the ABC case.

The report offers a number of options but legislation and regulations are the preferred choice. It says the Minister for Health should identify at which medical centres an abortion can take place.

The report also calls for the establishment of an appeals process for women who have been refused an abortion to seek a review of the decision.

It suggests terminations on the fringes of viability should take place in medical centres with neonatal care units and be conducted to maximise the changes of foetal survival.

The report restates that a woman is only lawfully entitled to an abortion in this State when there is a real and substantial risk to her life and when termination is the only way to avert this risk. Included among the risks is the risk of suicide.

The expert group report is due to be discussed at length by the Cabinet on Tuesday. The group, chaired by Mr Justice Sean Ryan, stressed in its report that abortion is legal in Ireland under the limited circumstances provided for by the Supreme Court ruling on the X case.

The report provides four options. The first is the introduction of guidelines which do not require primary legislation. The expert group has said it is unlikely to satisfy our obligations at the Council of Europe.

The second approach in allowing legal terminations of pregnancies where the life of the mother is at risk would be for the Minister for Health to administer regulations.

The report says “Ministers could not issue regulations without being given the power to do so by enabling legislation” and therefore “it is not likely to prove a speedier or superior solution than the other legislative options”.

The third option is for the introduction of legislation alone. The main advantage here is that it would allow the Oireachtas the “opportunity to discuss and vote on all the relevant details of the proposed legislation”.

A second advantage would be that “access to lawful termination of pregnancy in Ireland would be put on a statutory and therefore a more secure footing”. The disadvantage is that this process is likely to take “a considerable period of time”, and legislation may prove “too rigid”.

The fourth option outlined is new legislation plus regulations. The advantages include that the role of the Minister for Health “would come under less scrutiny in relation to procedural matters as these would be in the legislation”.

Another advantage is that regulations could be amended relatively easily. This would allow for possible changes in clinical practice, scientific advances and any challenges arising from their implementation.

The disadvantage is the same as outlined in relation to legislation alone, and that “due to the nature of this legislation, the process of drafting and democratic scrutiny is likely to take a considerable period of time”.

The report is “very negative” about the option which does not require legislation.

The report says “Ministers could not issue regulations without being given the power to do so by enabling legislation” and therefore “it is not likely to prove a speedier or superior solution than the other legislative options”.

Sinn Féin Leader Gerry Adams called for the report to be published. He said it was not a surprise that “the expert group has a preference for primary legislation (over guidelines or regulations).”

“There does need to be a discussion in the Oireachtas on the report but this cannot be used as an excuse to further delay the introduction of legislation.”

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The Government has been told in the expert group report that the State is under a legal obligation to establish "effective and accessible" procedures so that women who are "legitimately entitled" can have an abortion in Ireland.

The Sunday Independent has seen a full copy of the expert report that was given to the Cabinet late last week and is due to be published on Tuesday.

The report suggests it will be necessary to repeal the 1861 statute governing abortion, which it believes has a "chilling effect" on the treatment of pregnant woman in Irish hospitals.

The top-secret report was commissioned from an expert group following a European Court of Human Rights finding that an Irish citizen's rights were violated because of the absence of procedures to establish if she qualified for a lawful abortion.

The report was compiled before the Savita Halappanavar tragedy -- which is continuing to cause a political and public furore.

The expert group report, compiled by Mr Justice Sean Ryan, is likely to lead to a political firestorm.

Among the findings are:

- The State is obliged to provide procedures to establish a woman's right to an abortion as well as access to such treatments.

- In the case of a risk to the mother it must establish criteria or procedures by which a doctor is to assess that risk; and set up an independent review system where a patient disputes her doctor's refusal to certify that she is entitled to a lawful abortion and where there is a disagreement between doctors as to whether one is necessary.

Though the expert group is circumscribed, by its terms of reference, from making specific recommendations, the full unexpurgated report clearly indicates that legislation is the only appropriate response to the challenges posed by the X and C cases.

The report notes that while the State "is entitled to and indeed obliged to regulate and monitor" the rights of the unborn, it must ensure that "measures that are introduced to give effect to this constitutional right should not act as an obstacle to any woman who is legitimately entitled to seek a termination on lawful grounds".

It then gives the Government a complex list of options for creating a panel to decide such issues.

"The diagnosis of the medical specialists as to whether the woman satisfies the test in the X Case should be made expeditiously/or within a defined time limit and should be formally notified to the woman," it says.

The report also recommends that the Government must make provision for emergencies and disputes and measures to protect medical personnel involved.

"If a doctor carries out a termination in circumstances where the risk to life of the woman is imminent and inevitable rather than real and substantial, he/she should not have any liability because of the failure to follow prescribed procedures."

The Government has also been told to select locations where abortions may take place and taking into account "standards, geographical access and the need to have due regard to the right to the life of the unborn". Such centres should be certified by the Health Minister.

The report also confirms that, when it comes to concerns about suicide, in the wake of the X Case, "termination of pregnancy should be considered a medical treatment regardless of whether the risk to the woman arises on physical or mental health grounds.

"Ultimately, the most politically contentious aspect of the report is likely to be its analysis of whether non-statutory guidelines on the rights of a woman to an abortion in Irish hospitals, or a legislative response, will meet the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights," it says.

It warns that while consideration was given to the possibility of implementing the judgement without recourse to legislation, it is unlikely that "guidelines in isolation" or "some non-statutory protocols" would "fulfil all the requirements set by the European Court of Human Rights judgement."

 
 
OPINION: The Government needs to introduce robust legislation that provides clarity for women facing health risks

When I argued a case challenging Ireland’s ban on abortion before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), I told the story of my client Ms C, who had been battling cancer and had had no option but to travel to England to obtain an abortion when she became pregnant.

Ms C’s doctors had refused to provide even basic information about the risk that continuation of pregnancy posed to her life. The human rights court found this to be a clear violation of her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. It demanded that Ireland reform its abortion laws. The case was a major victory for women’s health and rights.

But the victory exists only on paper and not in practice, as is strongly indicated by the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar.

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