Year in Review: Policy Developments Regarding Abortion in 2023

2023 was a significant year for the pro-life movement. Proposed changes to the abortion law and several legislative battles have underscored the importance of a resilient and strong pro-life movement.

Bismarck is said to have compared laws with sausages – it is better to not see either being made. In a social media-dominated news cycle, shocking new abortion policy proposals can cross one’s newsfeed but will unfortunately be forgotten again in a week’s time. However, the proposals haven’t gone away. Attempts to expand an early extreme and pervasive abortion law continue to make their way through the Oireachtas, even if the media ignores this or takes a one-sided view.

The Pro Life Campaign’s task is to track and challenge efforts to railroad through extreme new abortion proposals, including through public awareness campaigns and behind-the-scenes lobbying. Politicians are still sensitive to the potential of losing pro-life votes. They need to be held accountable and encouraged to do right by their constituents by refraining from supporting extreme new measures.

Meanwhile, the Pro Life Campaign wants to steer the abortion debate back to the issues which matter. Recent proposals like “safe access zones” have been an attempt to smear and discredit pro-life citizens. Meanwhile, a blind eye is turned to scandals like the alarming annual increase in the abortion rate. From 2021 to 2022, the abortion rate rose by approximately 2,000. This year, 2023, it is likely based on current trends that the abortion rate could exceed 10,000. This needs to be at the centre of the debate.

To remind ourselves of some of the key policy developments in 2023, this small report has been produced. All of these issues are ongoing and need to be robustly challenged in the new year.

1. Three Year Review Report

In early 2023, the Minister for Health set several deadlines for when the report of the Three-Year Review would be published. He failed to observe these deadlines, with no explanation offered.

The report of the Three-Year Review was published on 26 April. Prior to its publication, its contents were leaked to the Irish Times which printed that it contained recommendations which amounted to “sweeping changes”, including legislative and some 60 operational changes. After its release, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: “it won’t be the case that the Government is going to sign-off on any legislative changes, that’s not going to happen.”

A criticism of the Three Year Review was published in July 2023 by the Pro Life Campaign.[1]

1.1 Marie O’Shea at the Health Committee

The chairperson of the three-year review, Marie O’Shea, appeared twice before the Joint Oireachtas Health Committee to discuss her report: on 31 May 2023 and on 18 October 2023.

31 May 2023 highlights:[2]

  • Marie O’Shea told the committee that she was “hearing recommendations” that abortion training should be provided as part of the undergraduate medicine curriculum. She noted that “values clarification training” is being “rolled out” by the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
  • When asked by Peadar Tóibín if she or any of the researchers had “spoken to any women who went through that three-day wait period, and decided to go ahead and have their child?”, O’Shea replied: “No, I have not.
  • When asked by Peadar Tóibín if she had spoken to the mother of Baby Christopher, who was wrongfully aborted after a misdiagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality, Marie O’Shea said: “No, I did not.
  • During an exchange between Michael McNamara and Marie O’Shea, the chair was asked to expand on her views that it would be appropriate for a candidate to be asked about their views on abortion. When asked if this would “lessen the chance of somebody with conscientious objection being recruited into the Irish health service” she said “Yes, I would imagine so.” When asked if this was acceptable, she said: “If you have to meet the needs of the service, yes it is.” This amounted to promoting discrimination against people who hold a pro-life viewpoint during the hiring process.

18 October 2023 highlights:[3]

  • When asked by Martin Conway if she was aware of “anywhere in the world where there is a three-day delay for any medical procedure?”, to which she replied: “Not that I am aware of.”  A chart of the jurisdictions which require a mandatory waiting period for abortion is supplied in Fig. 1.
  • When asked why the Report failed to interview any woman who availed of the three-day waiting period and didn’t proceed with an abortion, Catherine Conlon said that “no ethics committee would see that as an ethical practice.” Meanwhile, Deirdre Duffy said conducting qualitative interviews with women who considered abortion but opted to bring their child to term “may involve retraumatizing a person about a very vulnerable time in her life.” To show this inconsistency of this position, there was no concern raised about ethics and retraumatising women when they interviewed “a young woman who had been the subject of a sexual assault.

2. Brid Smith Abortion Bill

On 31 May 2023, a bill introduced by People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith passed 2nd stage of the Dáil by a narrow vote of 67 in favour, 64 against.

This bill was opportunistically introduced in the wake of the publication of the Three Year Review report, despite the fact it goes much further than the recommendations of the review. Even the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, stated that this private members bill went far beyond the recommendations of the review. Its contents include extending abortion on demand to 24 weeks of pregnancy, decriminalising abortion across the board, removing the three-day waiting period.

This extreme bill will be considered by the Dáil health committee where amendments can be proposed. Whilst it is highly unlikely the Bill will progress fully through Leinster House and become law, it has put the government under pressure to accede to a liberalisation of the abortion law.

3. Telemedicine

At a meeting of the Health Committee on 25 October, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly made an impromptu announcement that telemedicine abortions, introduced as a temporary measure during the Covid-19 pandemic, would “continue on a permanent basis”.

This rips up a promise made by his predecessor, Minister Simon Harris, in 2018 during the drafting of the legislation: “Absolutely, termination of pregnancy services in Ireland is not going to be done by tele-medicine.”[4]

Telemedicine has been acknowledged by the Department of Health to present risks to women in unplanned pregnancies. In a letter from the HSE written in May 2022, the HSE acknowledged that ‘in-person consultations allow provision of personalised care and allow potential problems to be identified and mitigated. Meeting the woman in person increases the likelihood of the provider identifying any coercion or domestic abuse.’[5]

As of March 2023, the Department of Health admitted that ‘no formal research or analysis on remote consultation has been conducted in Ireland’, and they were relying wholly on academic literature mostly from England.[6]

4. Exclusion Zones

The government introduced its ‘Safe Access Zones’ Bill in June 2023. It passed Second Stage in the Dáil in July, was rushed through the committee stage, and then passed Fifth Stage in the Dáil in November.

The government applied a whip to this Bill, failing to consider it an issue of conscience despite objections from Fine Gael deputy Ciarán Cannon among others.

The Bill is now at Second Stage in the Seanad, with the most recent debate happening in mid-December 2023.

The Bill has been criticised as draconian, wide-ranging, and extreme. The Pro Life Campaign’s October 2022 written submission to the Health Committee recognised that it was: “This proposal is wildly disproportionate. No such law exists at a national level in any other country of the European Union – let alone a law which applies such blanket “zones” where free speech and free assembly would be banned.”[7]

The same submission detailed how much of its proposals are redundant, as they criminalise actions which are already criminal offences under various Acts.

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[1]
https://prolifecampaign.ie/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Thoroughly-Flawed-Process.pdf.

[2] https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/joint_committee_on_health/2023-05-31/2/

[3] https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/joint_committee_on_health/2023-10-18/3/

[4] https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/select_committee_on_health/2018-11-06/2/

[5] https://www.hse.ie/eng/about/personalpq/pq/2022-pq-responses/may-2022/pq-22103-22-michael-collins.pdf

[6] https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/question/2023-03-29/200/

[7] https://prolifecampaign.ie/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/PLC-Oireachtas-Health-Committee-Submission-A4-Oct-2022-1-1.pdf


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