The Foetal Pain Relief Bill was introduced in May 2021 by Carol Nolan, a member of the Rural Independent Group in the Dáil, and co-sponsored by ten other pro-life TDs. The Bill was brought forth as an amendment to the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018, which legislates for the legal operation of abortion in Ireland. It set out a provision whereby pain relief medicine must be provided for unborn children in late-term abortion scenarios, in accordance with recent scientific evidence that unborn children can experience pain from 20 weeks gestation, with some literature suggesting it may be even earlier than this. [1]

Having progressed beyond its first reading, the Bill came up for its second stage in December. This was the stage where the general principles of the Bill would be read to the House. At this stage, the Minister (for Health) would be required to respond on behalf of the Government, the Opposition were afforded an opportunity to speak, as were the proponents of the Bill and other individual TDs.

In the lead up to the second stage reading of the Bill on 15th December, the Pro Life Campaign organised nationwide grassroots activism and lobbying efforts. This comprised emails and letters sent, physical lobbying meetings held, and phone-calls placed by pro-life members of the public to their local representative encouraging them to vote in favour of the measure. This was a significant mobilisation of the pro-life movement that has not been seen since 2018, with over 7,000 people signing a virtual postcard to their local TDs urging them to vote in favour of this Bill.

Many TDs, including several from a moderately pro-choice perspective, indicated their willingness to vote for this measure. Undoubtedly, the marshalling of the pro-life movement behind this humane and important measure impacted TDs who were keenly aware of the need to listen to their constituents’ views. Intense lobbying efforts continued throughout the days leading up to the Bill and on the day of its second stage reading.

On the morning of 15th December, the Bill was read before the House at second stage. Deputy Carol Nolan made an appeal to reason, outlining the humane and principled purpose of the Bill and setting a tone which favoured measured discourse on the specific merits of this particular Bill. She said:

“We must take the lead here. There’s a duty and an onus on us to take the lead as legislators who are determined to insert a modicum of compassion into what is already a sufficiently traumatising experience. We must not abdicate our responsibility as legislators by continuing to insist the issue of pain relief for the unborn child is not our business and will never be our business. How can we maintain that fiction?” [2]

Deputy Nolan was joined by parliamentary colleagues who urged the passage of the Bill from its second stage to committee stage, where it can be analysed in-depth line by line. Pro-life TDs were keen to point out the mounting scientific evidence which underlines the need for precautionary pain relief for unborn babies suffering late-term abortions. Their persuasive arguments were rooted in genuine compassion and respect for others.

The Government, represented by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, provided an official response to the Bill and moved to carry a blocking amendment to the Bill that it should be “declined a second reading” until the completion of the three-year review. Although this was a misleading attempt to avoid the issue, the Government’s decision to simply delay the reading of the Bill was rooted in their discomfort to engage with the Bill’s principles head on. In his speech, Minister Donnelly frequently spoke of the three-year review of abortion legislation and emphasised its report has not yet concluded and that it may produce a “more liberal” or even a “more conservative” set of recommendations. He made this point to rationalise delaying the progression of the Bill and placing all abortion-related discourse into the three-year review basket. By implication, the Minister perceived the proposed Pain Relief Bill was part of the “more conservative” approach to abortion, when in fact it should be a human rights-based consensus issue.

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Health David Cullinane sidestepped the issue at hand and claimed the provision of pain relief medicine should be simply left to the doctors to decide. This hands-off approach had been criticised by pro-life TDs who highlighted the hypocrisy of this approach in contrast with the existence of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 on the statute books, which mandates pain relief procedures for animals.

The serried ranks of ardent pro-choice politicians joined in chorus to attack this Bill not on its specific proposal but because they regarded it as pro-life. Their speeches were frequently vicious in tone and often resorted to ad hominem insults. However, their shift away from not taking the pro-life side seriously during the pro-life amendments proposed in the aftermath of the referendum towards a more militant defence pointed to the fact they felt challenged by the Bill. Undoubtedly, this was re-enforced by the deluge of pro-life communications arising from the significant grassroots lobbying campaign which inundated constituency offices across the country for a week before the vote.

Following the conclusion of the debate, TDs from the All Party Oireachtas Life and Dignity Group assembled outside the front gates of Leinster House to speak to the media. They stood behind banners which urged representatives behind those gates to “Follow the Science”. Another banner starkly pointed out the disparity in pain relief for animals versus unborn humans. This assemblage was photographed by the press and was widely circulated in the news and social media.

The division for the Bill, including the Government’s amendment, was called at approximately eight o’clock in the evening. 103 TDs voted in favour of the Government’s blocking motion, which ‘decline[d] to give’ the Bill a second reading to allow for the completion of the three-year review. [3] Unfortunately the motion was carried as expected; however, 37 TDs voted against the blocking motion and in favour of the Foetal Pain Relief Bill. Each of them are worthy of high praise for their valiant defence of human rights and dignity. In total, 15 Fianna Fáil TDs voted against their Government’s blocking amendment and were joined by 4 Fine Gael TDs. This represents a significant discomfort within the Government’s own ranks about their attitude towards the abortion issue.

The passage of the Government’s amendment means that the Bill will not be read a second time. The language used in their amendment sought to sidestep a straight vote on the issue, insteading deferring to the three-year review as the sole arbiter of all debate on the abortion issue. However, there is nothing stopping another Bill being introduced on this issue in the future. The All Party Oireachtas Life and Dignity Group have indicated their continuing commitment to introducing such humanitarian pain relief measures in the future. 

Overall, the events of 15th December were not a loss for the pro-life side. The re-emergence of discourse on the humanity of the unborn child and the defensive positions adopted by the pro-choice lobby indicate that the narrative is slowly shifting back. This could not have been achieved without the 7,000 plus pro-life communications sent by grassroots supporters in favour of this Bill. This Bill has breathed energy into the pro-life movement and will serve as a launchpad for future activism to ensure that the worst excesses of abortion are rolled back in Ireland.

Read the reaction of the All Party Oirachtas Life and Dignity Group to the vote here

See full voting records on the Bill here

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[1] See Derbyshire & Bockmann, ‘Reconsidering Fetal Pain’, Journal of Medical Ethics
[2] Carol Nolan, Dáil Éireann parliamentary debates, 15 December 2021.
[3]To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following: “Dáil Éireann declines to give the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) (Foetal Pain Relief) Bill 2021 a second reading in order to allow for the review of the operation of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 to conclude and for its recommendations to be considered.”