20th February 2002
Amendment would be "backward step" - Ó Caoláin
Speaking at the launch of Sinn Fein's campaign against the amendment, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD said:
As we meet today we have a crisis in the Accident and Emergency units of our hospitals which has led to threatened industrial action by staff. We have a grossly inequitable health service which cannot cope with the needs of our citizens. In the education sector we have primary schools falling into dilapidation and secondary schools about to be convulsed once again because the government will not reach a just settlement with teachers. And what does the government give us, and what will dominate political debate for the next month and beyond? An abortion referendum.
We in Sinn Fein are opposed to the holding of this unnecessary referendum. The Constitution is not and never has been the place to deal with the complex issue of abortion. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, we as a society, and legislators in particular, will still have to deal with the reality that some 6,000 women every year leave Ireland to have their pregnancies terminated.
However, if the proposed amendment is adopted, the Oireachtas will be required to pass legislation which it cannot amend without a further referendum. The hands of the legislators will be tied. It will require a referendum to amend the legislation which this amendment enshrines and, most probably also, to introduce new but related legislation. How many more times will it be necessary to amend the Constitution on this issue?
The mechanism of an amendment enshrining legislation in this way is highly questionable in our view. It may well be open to future legal challenge in the courts.
The government has ruled out the option of maintaining the status quo or legislating for the X case. This is regrettable. More regrettable still is the excuse offered. The Taoiseach has said that such legislation would lead to a liberal abortion regime, abortion on demand. This means in effect that the government does not trust women and they are not prepared to trust medical professionals. They are telling us that women will pretend to be suicidal and that the medical profession will support that pretence.
The Attorney-General, Michael McDowell, who is anchoring this referendum, stated in 1992, referring to the X case: "Rolling back the Supreme Court decision is a euphemism for tilting the scales of justice so as to force Irish women (including rape victims) to carry a real and substantial risk." Mr. McDowell has presented no sound reason for his change of opinion.
Sinn Fein policy states that we are opposed to the attitudes and forces in society that compel women to have abortions and which criminalise those who do. This amendment and legislation continues the criminalisation of women and it does nothing to address the attitudes and forces which so often result in women making that choice.
Little attention has been paid in the debate so far to the need for comprehensive measures to assist women with crisis pregnancies. The government made much of the establishment of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency which was announced at the same time as this referendum. But the Crisis Pregnancy Agency is an inadequate response to this issue, as the Irish Family Planning Association, among others, has pointed out. Despite its name, the Agency will not be providing a service directly to women with crisis pregnancies but will be an umbrella body, co-ordinating policy and strategy.
One of the major factors leading to crisis pregnancies is the lack of comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education. Universal free access to such information and services is needed. Similarly the support systems and services for women with crisis pregnancies are still inadequate. This is the area we should be concentrating on as legislators and as a society generally. Such an approach could help to reduce the number of women who make the journey to Britain.
In conclusion, I recognise that this is an extremely difficult issue for all concerned. There are a variety of strongly and sincerely held views in every party, including Sinn Fein. I recognise and respect those views. But I believe that the proposed amendment is a backward step and that it should be rejected.
I urge people to Vote No on March 6th.
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