Thursday, January 10, 2013

Committee hearings on abortion

Since we last mentioned abortion things have come a long way. The death of Savita Halappanavar, the ensuing vigils and protests, the leaking and publishing of the expert report, the reintroduction of Clare Daly's bill and the three days of public hearings by the Health Committee of the Oireachtas have all put abortion back at the heart of Irish politics. So much has happened and been commented upon that I'm not going to rehash old news but I do want to make a few comments on the Oireachtas hearings that have been held over the last three days.
Despite being in work this week, I managed, thanks to the HEAnet stream, to keep up with most of the proceedings in the Seanad chamber. From a bill drafting and parliamentary politics point of view, I feel that the public consultation was a bit of a waste of time. Despite James Reilly saying the contributions from the witnesses would feed into the process, I really get the feeling it was all a bit of a show to let the various groups feel like they had their day out.
That said, what the sessions did show is that is is possible to have a discussion about abortion without degenerating into school-yard name calling and bullying within a few minutes. Much of the praise for that must go to Jerry Buttimer who ran a tight ship as chair of the committee. But also a certain amount of begrudging respect must be shown to the TDs and Senators, especially over the course of the first two days who participated in a dignified and thoughtful way to the debate, Billy Kelleher and Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in particular.
The first two days, consisting of medical and legal opinion was pretty straight forward. I did learn that there are about 30abortions carried out in Ireland every year and that fatal foetal abnormalities could potentially be terminated according to the definition of life in the Constitution and Supreme Court judgements. I particularly enjoyed the session with William Binchy and Catherine McGuinness which consisted of a lot of mutual respect but also pretty direct disagreement between the two witnesses.
Day three, featuring religious and other advocacy groups was always going to be the most pointless and divisive and thus it proved. Yet again the protestant churches came out looking the best, with the strongly entrenched position of the Catholic church looking more and more out of touch with the general population. I was a little amused to catch a glimpse of Ronan Mullen in the camera shot while the representative of the Muslim community was quoting from scriptures. Mullen didn't seem to be too impressed. As usual, Mick Nugent of Atheist Ireland went in a bit too aggressive for my liking but I guess that's just his style.
Having long debates with the pro-life and pro-choice advocates was an even bigger waste of time. Everyone knows exactly where each group stands on the issue and all it provided was an opportunity for some snide remarks and loaded questions from all sides. Particularly unpleasant were the contributions of Terrance Flanagan and Fidelma Healy Eames in the final session.
So now that's out of the way, we have to sit back and wait for a bill to be drafted. Luckily one witness, Dr Simon Mills, has already done the hard work and submitted a draft bill to the committee for their consideration. I imagine the issue will be let lie for a while as the EU presidency gets up and running but we should see some further movement in about March I reckon. We could still have a new law signed by the summer recess bringing some closure to 20 years of X.

PS - I'm waiting for the transcript before discussing the issue of gender selection that was brought up in the final session. I missed hearing the details at the time and have only seen the comments on Twitter.


  1. I'd love to know how the Iona Institute got away with bringing in multiple speakers that pretended not to be affiliated in order to get more talking time, including the barrister who wasn't even invited to speak yet had multiple gos at the microphone.

  2. Ciarán, I'm not sure that it really matters how many speakers they had. The time slots for each session were strictly adhered to by Buttimer so if Iona or YD decided to divide their time amongst more speakers I'm not too fussed.