Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Seanad Éireann

Second Stage Debate: 6 December, 2018

Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018

Extracts re: Conscientious objection (P. 35-67)

Copyright the Houses of the Oireachtas. Reproduced under the Oireachtas (Public Sector Information – Open Data) Licence. Links, comparative tables and annotations added by the Protection of Conscience Project.

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[P. 35]

Deputy Simon Harris (Minister for Health)

. . . Section 22 of the Bill covers conscientious objection. It states that where he or she has a conscientious objection, a medical practitioner, nurse or midwife shall not be obliged to carry out, or to participate in carrying out, a termination of pregnancy. This is in line with both the Medical Council's guide to professional conduct and ethics for registered medical practitioners and with the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland’s code of professional conduct. I tabled amendments to this section in the Dáil to ensure that conscientious objection extends to all those who may be asked to participate in the service, including students, which was important.

I want to be clear that the law on abortion is changing in this country but the law on conscientious objection is not. As the Minister for Health, I will always respect conscientious objection and I believe a significant majority in these Houses of the Oireachtas would do likewise, but I will not respect conscientious obstruction. This law is coming in and it will be passed in accordance with the wishes of the people. People who conscientiously object do not need to play a role in that but there cannot be a situation where they would obstruct a woman accessing a legal health service or where a woman seeking help, often in a crisis situation, perhaps having been raped, would be shown the door or given the cold shoulder. We need to have a situation where conscientious objection is absolutely respected but not obstruction and they are different issues. . .

[P. 51]

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins

. . .This brings me to my key concern regarding the Bill. There are a number of other issues we should address. . . There are issues concerning conscientious objection. The Minister provided assurances in the Dáil last evening. When he returns to the Seanad, I will ask him to assure us that we will not see institutional conscientious objection coming into play in any way, be it by means of the letter or the practice. For example, we know that, in practice, there are many hospitals in Italy where people cannot access their rights. I agree that there is an obligation on every institution to deliver the service. . .

[P. 54]

Senator David Norris

An issue as important as this needs really careful consideration.

I would like to look at one issue to start off with, that is, the question of using GPs. That is a mistake. We should have clinics. What is wrong with having clinics here? If one had clinics in this country performing the abortions, one would avoid all the problems of conscience with doctors and others.

This is a really serious problem. I am strongly in favour of the woman's right to choose but I respect people's conscience and it is important that we do so. It is correct that there are exceptions in order that doctors who have a conscientious objection are not coerced into performing abortion but, from a principled point of view, if one has a deep aversion and objection to abortion, it is also a violation and is not appropriate to require people to refer because that comes close to aiding and abetting a criminal offence. It is aiding and abetting. If somebody deeply feels it is wrong, he or should not be forced into this situation. One would avoid this if one used clinics rather than GPs. It is not at all clear whether pharmacists, in providing the abortion pill, are covered by conscientious objection. If a pharmacist decides he or she does not want to and does not agree with it, he or she should be covered. It may surprise some people that I, coming from the position I do, have this respect for people's conscience but I think it is an important issue of principle. . .

[P. 60]

Senator Rónán Mullen

. . . The issue of freedom of conscience was brought into sharp focus by the emergency general meeting, EGM, of the ICGP last weekend which was convened to discuss this Bill. Always a man for a good soundbite, the Minister dismissed the doctors' concerns and was quoted last weekend as stating:

The law on abortion is changing. The law on conscientious objection is not changing.

Any rational analysis of this Bill, however, shows that this is simply not the case. As the law stands, if a woman presents at her GP to request an abortion, the GP can inform her that he or she will not take part in such a procedure, and at that point his or her legal obligations end. Under the Bill, however, if the same GP refuses to carry out the termination, a new legal obligation is placed on him or her to refer the mother and her baby to another GP in order for that doctor to terminate the life of the baby. By definition, therefore, the law on conscientious objection is being changed, despite the ministerial Orwellian doublespeak. Whereas today, a doctor can freely, and in accordance with his or her conscience, refuse to facilitate a termination of pregnancy in any way, shape or form, because he or she does not believe that it is not medicine or is not good for the mother and the baby in their best clinical and ethical judgement, from the day this new law comes into force, he or she r will be forced to facilitate a termination as a third party. It is doublespeak of the most nonsensical and objectionable kind for the Minister to suggest that such a fundamental change in the law is not a change in the law at all. . .

. . .A poll conducted by Amárach Research . . .  found that 68% support the right of full conscientious objection for doctors not to participate in abortions, compared to just 17% against. . .

[P. 63]

Senator Brian Ó'Domhnaill

. . .There is much more that could be said. There are many questions I would like to put and, no doubt, we will have an opportunity to do so. . . As Senator Norris rightly outlined, issues arise over conscientious objection. I agree with him. We have learned nothing from what is happening in Norway, for instance, where on 11 October a doctor whose employment had been terminated took a case to the Supreme Court and won on the grounds of conscientious objection. Despite this, we are denying the right to doctors, midwives, nurses and pharmacists here. . .

[P. 67]

Senator James Reilly

. . . There is one element I want to speak to as a doctor because I believe very strongly in the right of conscientious objectors not to be forced to do something that is against their conscience. I respect those people. It is not my position, but I do not want to see doctors bullied or vilified because of a position they hold. I do not want doctors or junior doctors bullied or vilified by older doctors who might take a different opinion to them, one way or the other. Much of this care is going to take place in general practice where there are many group practices with young doctors who might not share the view of the senior person in the practice. That has to be respected. . .