Kicking the can down the road on abortion legislation

Developments in the Eurozone have been an issue in the Dáil all year and each time that there is a summit we get an opportunity to speak on the matter, before and after. Week 29 was another such occasion and this is what I said to Finance Minister Michael Noonan, “All of the summits have adhered to a trend whereby we get a great sense of optimism in the lead-up followed immediately afterwards by a degree of rallying on the markets before sober reality kicks in some days later and any gains are lost. Europe has proved unsuccessful to date in solving the main problems it faces. The Minister claimed in a radio interview last week that the euro now looks secure, that Europe will return to growth and that the threat of a recession emanating from Europe has been removed. Those claims are surely somewhat optimistic.

Several major questions emerged from last week’s summit, namely, whether it would make Greece viable; whether the banks would be able to increase their capital ratios without causing another credit crunch; where would the money come from for the EFSF; would it take the heat off Italy; and, what are the chances of improving Europe’s growth prospects. The notion that Greece will be able to reduce its debt to 120% of GDP by 2020 is grossly optimistic. That target is calculated on the basis that the country will have an average annual growth rate of 2% in the next nine years. Given that it is currently at minus 5.5%, such a positive prediction is stretching credibility. Moreover, the markets have indicated that Greece will need to reduce its debt to approximately 80% of GDP before they will resume lending to it. Developments in recent days bear out the reality that Greece is far from out of the woods.

In regard to banking, European banks have been quite open in their indications that in order to deleverage they will either refuse to extend credit or else call in loans which they would not otherwise have called in so quickly. We all know how difficult it is to secure credit in the current environment. If the European banks become as closed as their Irish counterparts, it does not bode well for Europe’s growth prospects.

On the EFSF, we will have to adopt a wait and see approach. The facility seems to have been divided into two sections: first, a special-purpose investment vehicle which there is a reliance on the Chinese to fund; and, second, an insurance fund which will indemnify investors against the first 20% of any losses on sovereign bond purchases. Given that we are already at 50% in the case of the Greek debt, it is difficult to see how the EFSF will be Europe’s saviour. Moreover, it will not function as a lender of last resort; that is not the German plan.

With regard to growth, I remain to be convinced that the austerity measures being promoted by European leaders will stimulate growth. Rather, Europe will likely be obliged to do a U-turn on this issue. Krugman and Stiglitz have been shouting from the rooftops for several years that austerity will not bring about the growth we are seeking.”

My next subject is always a controversial one in Irish society. Nineteen years ago, a referendum vote gave the government the power to legislate for the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy when her life was threatened, including the threat of suicide. Successive governments have refused to deal with this very important issue, for a number of reasons, mainly because they were afraid of the opposition coming from very powerful lobby groups, and also because there would be no votes to be gained from it. The result of this inertia has seen the can just kicked down the road for all those years since. The politicians’ ultimate goal in life - to be re-elected - has meant that this human rights issue has been neglected all this time and we have continued to export our problems to Britain. We have also found ourselves to be in contravention of the European Court of Human Rights and are seen to be one of the most backward States in Europe in this area. I realise that I will be much criticised for raising this issue in Dáil Eireann but I felt it was time someone did – sadly, the government has to be provoked into dealing with the issue.

I also know that the powerful groups who oppose the European Court of Human Rights view on this matter will be much more vocal than the ordinary people who recognise that this is a human rights issue for women. These groups tend to be well-organised and well-funded. I also realise that I will not gain any votes for my stance, but I am not going to expend my energy in Dáil Eireann just gaining browning points with a view to being re-elected – I will continue to do and say what I think is right and if people do not want me to represent them come the next election, so be it, I will accept their judgment.

My question to the Minister for Health was as follows, “To ask the Minister for Health if he will provide a detailed timeframe for the expeditious implementation of the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the A, B and C case committed to by the Government at the UN Human Rights Council hearing in Geneva on 6 October 2011, including exact dates for the establishment of the expert group and the conclusion of their work; his response to their proposals; if he will provide a detailed explanation for the rejection of six recommendations from European countries relating to abortion; and if he will make a statement on the matter.”

Part of my speech was as follows, “As I am sure the Minister is well aware, almost 20 years have passed since the X case and we have watched Government after Government kick the can down the road and refuse to have the courage to deal with this issue. We are talking about a human rights problem which we have been content to export rather than deal with it head on, as we are afraid of what the public or powerful lobby groups might think. We have been afraid to do the right thing. We compare Ireland to other countries in Europe, but 44 of the 47 countries in Europe are way ahead of us on this issue in respecting the right to health of the pregnant woman. Irish abortion law denies women the most fundamental right to live in dignity and to self-determination and the opportunity to exercise these rights without discrimination in that having an abortion is criminalised in almost all circumstances. Elsewhere in Europe the approach adopted is consistent with the standard of proportionality in key human rights which requires that laws and policies applied to regulate access to abortion services cannot excessively interfere with a woman’s rights to life, health, privacy, freedom from cruel and inhumane treatment and non-discrimination. The Government has been in office for nearly one year. I would have thought that the Minister would have considered this matter to be a top priority, one that needed to be dealt with quickly. Is he telling me that the expert group is still in the process of being set up? When it is set up, will he publish the names of its members, outline the reasons for their selection and the terms of reference? It would be interesting to have that information because it goes without saying the group which will be selected will have considerable influence on the final decision to be made.”

The Minister replied, “The Government has many priorities. While this is a hugely important issue, the survival of the economy and the maintenance of a reasonable health service are but two priorities with which we are dealing on a daily basis. Notwithstanding this, we gave a commitment in the programme for Government that we would form a special advisory group and when that group is in place, the names of its members and its terms of reference will be made public.”