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Catriona Ruane speaks against Justice Bill Amendment

12 March, 2013

I want to begin by setting out the Sinn Fein position with regard to abortion.    Sinn Féin is not in favour of abortion. We  opposed and voted against the extension of the 1967 Act to the North when it was proposed in the Assembly. That remains our position.  

Sinn Féin believes that in the case of rape, sexual abuse or incest or where a pregnant woman’s life is in danger the option of termination should be available. That has also been our position for some time and that also has not changed and that remains our position Sinn Féin also believes  that this issue should be addressed in a comprehensive manner, involving a multiagency response that develops effective services for sexual health and sex education, fuller access to child support provision and specific support for single parents.

Within our party there are a wide range of views on this issue as you would expect, as indeed, there would be with many issues. Over the past number of days I have spoken with many members of my party, many people have differing issues and concerns and I respect that. What struck me at our latest discussion was the sense of camaraderie and respect there was for other people’s opinions and it is days like this I am proud to be a member of Sinn Féin.

I have listened very carefully to the contributions from other individuals in other parties when this issue has arisen in the past.   Most recently some of these individals have conceded that they too are supportive of the need for a woman to have the option of a termination when her life is at risk.

Two of the signatores to today’s amendment, Pal Givan DUP and Alban McGuinness SDLP confirmed on radio that they support termination when a mothers life is in danger.   The leader of the Ulster Unionists,  Mike Nesbitt has indicated  that he is voting against the amendment. And comments from the DUP leader Peter Robinsion in  the Belfast Telegraph last year suggest he too is of a similar mind.

So – it is not unreasonable to pose the question  why was this amendment brought forward?   This amendment represents the wishes and the views of a few.  It is a clear attempt to restrict the ability of a woman whose life is at risk to seek a termination that would save her life.   It runs contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. 

And those who brought it forward should be ashamed of themselves.   Their underlying intention has been concealed in legal speak,  in mixed messaging,  in attempts to sow confusion.  They have even sought to exploit this issue – this very important issue – for cheap electoral gains in the recent Mid Ulster by election.  They have come up with one red herring after another,  one excuse after another.

So, let’s strip away the excuses, and the weak rationale for their position is exposed. I very much look forward to hearing and seeing how people vote in relation to this. Excuse No 1. It is an issue of private v public health care. In Sinn Féin’s view in an ideal world all aspects of health would be dealt with in the National Health Service. I would have more respect for the DUP’s and SDLP’s position if they were consistent in relation to this – but they are not.

Maybe if they had led the demand for the publication of the guidance from the Health Minister on which we have all been waiting so patiently for a long period,  maybe if they had waited until this guidance was published , analysed,  debated and made fit for purpose,  maybe if they had taken actions to ensure that in the traumatic circumstances in which a woman might find herself  - pregnant and her life at risk – the National Health Service would be there for her… maybe then we could listen to their argument about emergency procedures outside the National Health Service.

The reality is of course the national health service is currently heavily dependent on private health  referrals from NHS to private clinics for a wide range of treatments. Currently a significant number of NHS operations are carried out in private health clinics funded by the taxpayer. The failure of the Health Minister to have guidance in place to give clinicians the legal assurance required to allow them to intervene in life threatening circumstances at the request of the mother represents  gross negligence on his behalf. In the absence of proper guidance there can be no other conclusion but that this amendment is  aimed at ensuring no other avenue will be open to a women in a life threatening situation to opt for a termination.

In an ideal world all aspects of health would be dealt with in the National Health Service. Where a termination might or might not take place is not the issue. The important thing is that it happens within the law. Any institution which provides for a termination whether in the NHS or private health care domain must of course be regulated. But of course this amendment is not about medical emergencies nor indeed ensuring women get the best treatment in these difficult circumstances. It is about limiting women’s right to have this treatment.

Excuse No 2 – We are not really changing the law. I nearly fell off my chair when I heard Alban McGuinness getting himself further entangled on the hook on an interview yesterday morning. He said something it wasn’t really changing the law. This is a Criminal Justice Bill – if it does not change the law what is it doing? It is an amendment to the law – if it were supported here today the law would change – that is the whole point of legislation. And we have a letter from the Minister for Justice to every MLA outlining his concerns about what it might mean.

The Health Minister Mr. Poots has not bathed himself in glory – spending his energy having a public legal spat with the Minister for Justice instead of doing the job he is supposed to be doing. We await his guidelines with interest. If reports of them are anything to go by he has missed an opportunity to bring forward guidelines that comprehensively deal with this important issue.

Excuse No 3 - Marie Stopes Clinic is not regulated.  I listened carefully to what Marie Stopes had to say in relation to regulation and the law. They at all times stated that they wanted to work within the law. Strange though that the same Paul Givan and Alban McGuinness did not seem to be concerned about regulation of other clinics. Each time they took a position they landed themselves in another mess. Bringing forward this amendment is perhaps the worst example we have seen to date in the Assembly of stroke politics.

This amendment is about trying to close down the Marie Stopes clinic and as a result limiting the opportunity for a woman to exercise the option of a termination when her life is in danger. Those who brought forward the amendment should have the courage to say so. This was an attempt to bring us back instead of forward. 

Attempting to criminalise women in vulnerable situations is unacceptable.  The Criminal Justice arena is not the place to deal with a sensitive healthcare issue like this. It is ironic that the Paul Givan has described the use of a Petition of Concern to block the amendment he and the SDLP have tabled as a cynical use of a Petition of Concern. In the past two years the Petition of Concern has been used on just over a dozen occasions – 7 times by the DUP on its own, three times the Ulster Unionists and the DUP together (presumably at instigation of UU who needed DUP support) and the remainder by SF and SDLP together. So on a majority of occasions the Petition of Concern has been used by a single party as a means of blocking various motions in the Assembly.

The Petition of Concern is a safeguard to ensure that critical decisions are made on a cross community basis. If ever there was a need to use one it is now to stop the introduction of draconian legislation  I want to thank Steven Agnew from the Green Party and Anna Lo from the Alliance Party. I also want to thank the other 28 members of Sinn Féin, who along with myself signed the petition of concern. It contrasts with the failure of leadership in how we deal with these issues on this island. In the South the failure to legislate is nothing short of disgraceful – despite supreme court and European Court of Human Rights rulings, the X case where a 13 year old girl who became pregnant after rape, and the most recent tragic death of a young woman – Savita Halappanavar in Galway we still do not have legislation.

What happened that young woman should not be allowed to happen again. The absence of legislative implementation of these judgements has created very dangerous grey areas in which, as we now know all too well, women can die. Five successive governments have failed to legislate. In the North the track record of the authorities is little better than it has been in the South. The withdrawal of guidance needed to bring the clarity that ensures that medical practitioners within the health service have the assurance and support of the law to allow them to carry out their work and when required act to save lives.

Statistics tell us that restriction of access does not prevent women from procuring terminations, this is evidenced by the estimated 7000 Irish women every year who travel to other jurisdictions to access terminations. If we further restrict the ability of women to access services to which they are legally entitled we will add further and unnecessary risk by forcing those women to procure abortifacient medications from the internet in the absence of medical supervision. In conclusion The Amendment is clearly an attempt to restrict the right of a woman to obtain a termination in life threatening circumstances. It is an attempt to further compound their trauma by marginalising them at a time in their lives when they are most vulnerable. Are we to wait until we have a repeat of the Savita Halappanavar case before we are shook to our senses. Are we to await another tragedy before those who brought this amendment forward will cease to play with the lives of women. Are we to continue to foment confusion, or are we to bring clarity, certainty to the need for the rights of a woman in this particularly difficult situation. 

Tagging this amendment to the further consideration stage of a miscellaneous provisions criminal justice bill does a great disservice to the issue and is insulting to those women who have undergone the termination of a much wanted pregnancy which threatened their lives. The use of an amendment in this instance bypasses the need for public consultation, disenfranchising the public from having their say on this important and sensitive issue. It is bizarre that would publicly consult for a minimum of twelve weeks on the high hedges but would not seek the views of the public and medical practitioners on this. Protecting the lives of pregnant women is not a difficult choice …. It is the only choice. The need for this protection will not simply go away.

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