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Wednesday, 6 March, 2002, 18:08 GMT
Irish abortion referendum: Your questions
The BBC's Peter Gould put your questions to Liz McManus, the Irish Labour Party's spokesperson on Health, Dr Berry Kiely of the Pro Life Campaign and Sinead Kennedy of the Alliance for a No Vote.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:


On Wednesday 6 March Ireland goes to the polls to vote in the country's third abortion referendum in twenty years.

The long running contentious issue has proven a divisive one in the country's recent history, not least throughout this year's referendum campaign.

Abortion is currently illegal in Ireland except in cases where there is a threat to the life of a pregnant woman. If approved, the new legislation will mean that the risk of suicide by an expectant mother will no longer be considered grounds for terminating a pregnancy.

Critics say the government's proposal will further tighten the already stringent restrictions on the right of Irish women to have abortions. The government has also been accused of using the referendum as a political platform ahead of the expected May general elections.

Are you in favour or opposed to the proposed legislation on abortion in Ireland? Do you think the Irish government is taking the right or wrong approach to the abortion issue? What would you like to ask the panel?


Well we've had a great deal of e-mails on this issue, not just from the Republic of Ireland but from all over the world - we'll get to those in a moment. But first of all let me introduce you to our panel today. First of all Liz McManus is voting no, she represents the Labour Party here in Ireland and is the spokesperson for health. She says that the referendum is unnecessary, flawed and dangerous. Liz in just a few words why should people vote no?

Liz McManus:
Well at the moment under the Irish constitution there is a protection to the right to life of women, it's considered equal to the rights of life of the unborn. This proposal that the Government's putting forward would actually reduce the right to life of women by excluding people who have - who are at the risk of suicide. At the moment it's extremely difficult to have an abortion in Ireland but this will actually make it even harder. So we are opposed to it.

Right, well let me introduce the next member of our panel. Dr Berry Kiely is a paediatrician and the medical advisor to the Pro Life Campaign here in the Republic and she says that no campaigners are trying to confuse undecided voters. Again, just in a few words, state your position.

Berry Kiely:
Well basically the position from us campaigners - this is something we've been lobbying for a few years since 1992 when we had that extraordinary Supreme Court decision that nobody expected and which said that abortion is in fact legal in this country where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother which would include a risk of suicide. And we've been lobbying the Government since then, that clearly flew in the face of what the people had intended when they put in the previous constitutional amendment and we've been lobbying to have that decision overturned. What this particular measure would do is effectively overturn the Supreme Court decision and return the position to what it has been after the 1983 amendment which clearly stated that abortion is illegal in Ireland, that we must find better ways of solving human dilemmas and real human tragedies at times but there has to be better ways than actually killing the unborn.

Ok, the third member of our panel now: Sinead Kennedy from the no side of the debate. In fact you represent the alliance for a no vote and you've called this a draconian piece of legislation which is incredibly anti-woman. In 30 seconds why should people vote no tomorrow?

Sinead Kennedy:
I think people should vote no because this referendum will overturn the X case decision where a woman who's suicidal will be prevented from having an abortion in this country. People have already voted on this issue, we voted in 1992 and people voted to retain suicide as grounds for an abortion in Ireland. And thirdly I think one of the reasons that's most draconian and most anti-woman is that it's creating a new criminal offence that will effectively criminalise a woman who's desperate and often vulnerable enough to consider abortion herself and instead of getting care and compassion from the state the Government wants to throw her in prison for 12 years.

Ok. Well I should say at this point that we had hoped that the Government's minister for health would be joining us today but he decided at the last moment that he wouldn't be able to attend because of the moratorium on campaigning in the 24 hours before the vote takes place tomorrow. So with our panel of three let's start with the e-mails. One, first of all, from Sasita in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia who wants to know: "Who do you stand for in the abortion debate - the baby or the mother?" Berry.

Berry Kiely:
I would think you stand for both because both are intrinsically linked together. I mean what's unique about pregnancy from a doctor's perspective is that you have two patients to look after at the same time - the mother and the baby. And as a doctor the best that you can do is to do the best you can for both of those patients. It's worth making the point of course - the baby cannot survive if the mother does not provide. So the best way of looking after the baby is to give the best care that you possibly can to the mother. And that would also, I think, from the point of view of maternal health, the whole issue of suicide is hugely important. For example, we do know now, which we didn't know before, that abortion is a very significant risk factor for suicide - women who've had abortions are actually six times more likely to commit suicide than women who continue with their pregnancies - that's been proven beyond doubt at this stage. We also know that attempted suicide is much higher in women who have had abortions than women who have not had abortions. And I think at this stage there's almost universal agreement in the fact that abortion is not a treatment of suicide and it may actually compound the problem. A threat of suicide is a cry for help, I think everybody recognises that. And what we need to do is take each case on its own merits and see why is this situation so traumatic for this woman, what are the particular circumstances that are making this such a difficult position for her to be in and try to alleviate whatever those conditions are. I think, if you like, as doctors what we have to try and do is care for the long-term health of our patients and sometimes help them through what can be very difficult situations but in the manner that's actually going to be best for them.

Liz McManus the question implies that a decision has to be made and do you favour the rights of the unborn child or the mother?

Liz McManus:
Well obviously in principle one wants to protect the right to life of both and I think that's the basis of medical practice, not just in Ireland but generally. But it isn't always possible and that there are rare occasions that we're all aware of where decisions and choices have to be made - where a woman's life is at risk. That is recognised at the moment in the Irish constitution and it was confirmed by the Supreme Court that the risk of suicide was a real if rare risk. And the idea that people who have abortions - I'm sorry but I have listened patiently to you [TALKING OVER] ...

Just let Liz finish her point.

Liz McManus:
I think Berry has certainly had a good run. In terms of the risk of suicide there is a real risk but a rare risk and this is a point that has been made by psychiatrists in this country, not only do they make it but we have the evidence where we had two young girls, the X case was 14 years old, the C case was 13 years old, in both cases ...

If I can just interrupt for a moment, the people outside Ireland might be confused by the constant references to the X case - we should perhaps explain that this was about a young woman who found herself in very trying circumstances.

Liz McManus:
Well maybe if I could just explain very briefly. The first case was a 14-year-old girl who was the subject of statutory rape who became pregnant, who actually tried to have an abortion in England and had to come home because the courts - the Attorney General actually charged her with trying to have an abortion, which she wasn't entitled to have. The Supreme Court decided she was entitled to have an abortion in Ireland or wherever she wanted to have it because she was suicidal. The following case that occurred in '92 was actually, if anything, more tragic because it was a younger girl of 13 who was brutally violated, sought an abortion on the same grounds and was granted it on the same grounds because the psychiatrist in the case made a very detailed diagnosis and said that she did need to have a termination of her pregnancy and the judge accepted that. Now we all understand that there is a natural drive when you're pregnant away from suicide or to continue life and it's a very natural thing but we do know quite clearly there are cases where not only a woman is at risk of suicide but that they actually commit suicide and that that has to be recognised. And it's an issue that we know from our own experience cannot be ignored and that's why I feel very strongly that what we're tackling here is that we're trying to fool ourselves that nobody ever is at risk of suicide when they're pregnant or that somehow they are incapable of making a decision as to the outcome of their dilemma. We have to remember 7,000 Irish women travel to England every year, Britain in the last year, to have abortions, they are not coming home and committing suicide, they are coming home and getting on with their lives. Now that is a concern I have - that because we're pretending that we don't have abortion in Ireland we're closing our eyes to the reality of the experience of these young women, we aren't dealing in a mature way with the reality which I find I'm uncomfortable with because I want to reduce the level of abortions in Ireland but the first thing we have to do is face up to the reality - these women are freely making a decision about their own lives and that we cannot go round presuming things about them until we understand and hear from them.

Ok, we've got a lot more e-mails so let's press on. One from J. Leonard in Arras in France: "Will the wording of the upcoming poll be explicit enough for citizens to understand? Could a problem arise whereby those against abortion on all counts may vote no and those who support its introduction may vote yes? What's being done to make the poll as unambiguous as possible?" Sinead if I could bring you in on this. A lot of people have said this is very confusing, this yes, no vote on a very complex issue.

Sinead Kennedy:
Well I think there is a huge level of confusion and I think some of that's been illustrated in the last opinion polls conducted over the weekend which have shown actually an increase in the people who don't know what way they're going to vote. I think that's a deliberate tactic, certainly on behalf of the Government, to confuse the issue, to - they've come out with things saying that it's going to protect the morning after pill - there's nothing in this legislation that's going to change the legality of the morning after pill one way or another. They've said things like - Liz spoke about the C case in 1997 in which a 13-year-old rape victim who was in the care of the state would have been allowed - and was allowed to travel to Britain only because she was suicidal. The Government has said that they're going to pay for women in similar circumstances to go to Britain. Actually if they look at the judgement in the C case the only reason she was allowed to go to Britain was because she was suicidal and what this legislation will do will remove suicide as grounds for an abortion. So what you will see is in the case of a 13-year-old woman or any woman who was in the case of the state and who needs assistance in travelling to Britain they will be prevented from having an abortion. So I think there's a deliberate policy of misinformation by the government which has, I think, heightened the level of confusion.

Let me bring Berry in on this same point and again another e-mail on pretty much the same issue from Myra in County Meath: "Why is this whole referendum campaign so confusing?" I mean do you think that there will be people voting no for quite different reasons?

Berry Kiely:
I think there will be people voting no for different reasons but I do think that the people who are voting yes know why they're voting yes and I think early on there certainly was a huge amount of confusion. I would blame people on either side of me here for a lot of that in that I think the people who campaigning for a no vote set out specifically to make it confusing, to bring in a lot of red herrings. But I think to be honest as the debate has gone on and as we've all discussed this I think it has become clearer to people that a yes vote is a vote to outlaw abortion and to protect all medical care - psychiatric, medical or surgical care - that a pregnant woman might need and that basically anyone who is pro life, anyone who wants to close the door to abortion in Ireland will be voting yes - so the vast majority of them will be. I think those that would like to see abortion in Ireland, be it under limited circumstances or the broad sort of abortion on demand that some people do want, they will be voting no - that's in the end what it'll come down to - it'll be a yes vote if you want to keep abortion out, it'll be a no vote if you want to let abortion in.

A question from Kevin Peacock in London: "Does the panel accept that it's far easier to regulate something in your own country than it would be to criminalise it and force it offshore?" Liz, as we were saying, 7,000 Irish women each year travel outside the country, mainly to Britain, to get abortions, presumably you would argue that this vote isn't going to change that one way or the other?

Liz McManus:
No it's not going to change it one way or the other. What it may change, if it's passed, is the Irish constitution - I think it'll do damage to the constitution as well as damage to women. But there is an issue obviously that it's quite clear were it not for Britain providing us with professional quality services we would have to face this issue for ourselves and it's not the first time that we've exported a problem but it is, I think, a sign of a mature republic, an independent republic when we actually deal with what is a very difficult social problem, an issue that there are very genuine and I respect views on the whole area of pro life and how do you work out the competing rights. I mean I think we need to have that debate, we haven't really begun to have that debate. What we're talking about here is putting something into the constitution which is largely irrelevant to these thousands of women who are travelling in secret, without proper care beforehand or proper healthcare afterwards. Now that is a serious shortfall in terms of our health service. These are women who may be our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, whoever, and they have been availing the service in another country but in conditions that are not, in my view, compatible with a modern independent state. And we need to address that. And the first step, before we can actually start to make real decisions, the first step is to hear the voices of those young women. This amendment is going to criminalise women further and I think it's going to drive this whole movement further underground.

Let me bring Berry in on this same issue, this question, in fact from Jim Smith in California: "If the people vote for this legislation will women still be allowed to travel abroad for abortions?"

Berry Kiely:
This legislation won't in any way affect a woman's freedom to travel, it's not aimed at doing that, it's to regulate the law on abortion here in Ireland and to get the protection for the unborn here. But I think Liz and myself have in fact talked about this many a time and it's an issue which we would feel very united on I think, in that we would agree that an awful lot more can be done and should be done and hopefully will be done to help the women. I mean we actually - we have heard a lot of the voices of these women through the Trinity Study on crisis pregnancy, where a lot of them - and what are very, very striking in the interviews done with the women who went to England for abortion is that the reason why they were going for abortion was not so much any right to choose but a sense that they had no choice, the sense that they didn't have the support here that they needed - be it financial support, be it emotional support or whatever the particular situation was. And those are all things that I think we agree - we can do things about that, we have the energy, we have the drive, we know that what has worked - things have been done in other places that have worked really effectively. Those 7,000, that number, could be dramatically reduced and my hope will be that this crisis pregnancy agency, and I think this will be Liz's hope as well, will be very effective in doing that and that we will be able to give very real alternatives to women who find themselves in this sort of a tragic situation because I think everybody recognises that it can be a very difficult situation for a woman to find herself with an unintended pregnancy and particularly if she doesn't have family and emotional and financial support. But that's, I think - it's a challenge to us really as a society to be able to provide a much more supportive approach for women in that situation so that very few of them would take that route.

Ok, let me bring in Sinead at this point. We've a couple of questions on a similar issue really, Martina in the United Kingdom wants to know: "At what age does the foetus need to be to gain its own rights?" And David Bellerby in Doncaster, England: "When does an unborn child become a human being - is it day one after conception or 20 weeks? Does an unborn baby have any less right to live if they're one day short of the defined boundary?" And this whole question of where does life begin in the legal sense is really at the heart of this whole argument isn't it?

Sinead Kennedy:
Yeah I mean they are extremely complex, ethical, philosophical questions. But I think there are certain circumstances where the right of a foetus, which I don't think you can say is a human being, it's not a human being in the same way that you and I are a human beings, it is, of course, a foetus, it has value in that it is a potential life and that it will be a human being when it is born. But at times when those rights come into competition, where there is a woman's right - her right to life but also her right to make decisions about her own body and not to be forced to go ahead - or to be, you know, to be forced to go ahead with a pregnancy against her will, it's a very invasive thing, it's - I think it somehow diminishes her as a human being - a woman must have the right to make decisions about her own fertility, her own body and her own life. And I think we have to trust that women are capable, that they're rational, intelligent human beings who are capable of making decisions about their own lives and no woman makes the decision to have an abortion offhand or off the cuff, it's a very difficult decision, but she considers all the circumstances in her life and those in her family and her friends and makes that decision and I think we should support women who make that decision and say - Well you are an independent person who's capable of making that decision.

Ok, a question now from Chris in Newcastle in the UK who wants to know: "Why in the year 2002 does a democratic country bow to the Catholic church for a baseline on what is or is not right however archaic it is? It seems that Irish politicians are almost embarrassed to even suggest the merest possibility of an open discussion on the matter let alone actually admitting being pro abortion, for fear that they will be condemned to some kind of fiery hell by the Pope." Well as a politician Liz, how do you answer that?

Liz McManus:
We haven't talked about anything else for quite a long time. Somebody said to me recently you know the British have the royalty and we have our church. I mean I don't think that people necessarily are overcome by the power of the church, in fact Irish Catholics very often have a tremendous independence of spirit, I mean if you look, for example, at the church it's still telling Irish women that we shouldn't be using contraceptives but quite clearly women are using contraceptives and are living with their consciences and attending mass and all the rest of it when they're practising Catholics. So obviously the bishops have spoken, people will listen to what they have to say but not necessarily adopt exactly the same views. I think as we have matured as a society and it's not over yet that process of maturation and people are using their independent view and their personal conscience much more than they might have done 30 years ago. But it is part of our culture and I don't think one should automatically presume that there's something wrong with the way we have developed, we have cultural identity, we have a sense of ourselves and we have traditions but we also have real problems and dilemmas that young Irish women who are equal citizens, as equal as anybody else in this society, and what concerns me is at the end of the day we are not treating these young women as equals, as adults, as people who make decisions about their lives, we're treating them somehow as people to be patronised. And I find that is a very unpleasant and inadequate response to what is a real social challenge.

We don't have much time left so perhaps I can go round all three of you and ask you the same question really. I mean do you think people are going to come out and vote on this issue tomorrow? We've seen lots of posters around the streets of Dublin and I guess it's the same in the rest of Ireland but at the same time a lot of people say they're unsure, they're confused - will people come out and vote Berry?

Berry Kiely:
They will come out and vote, not perhaps in the numbers I'd like them to come out and vote because I think we would again - I think Liz and I would agree on this - part of the hallmark of a democracy should be that people have their say and I think it's a pity if people don't actually do that. But I have to say I'm confident that it will be a yes vote and that it will be a clear enough statement from the people that yes we do want to keep abortion out of Ireland, yes we do want to keep the medical standards that have given us the best maternal mortality figures in the world, I mean Ireland is the safest place in which to be pregnant. Part of the culture that has given life to that, I think, is the fact that we don't have an abortion culture, so we have a medical profession which strives very hard at all stages to do the best for both mother and baby and I think a yes vote will confirm that.

Sinead briefly - will people vote and which way is it going to go?

Sinead Kennedy:
I think it's very close to call. My feeling perhaps is that the no might just win but I think it will be very close. I think there's going to be a very low turnout, I think a lot of people are confused and I don't know whether people will come out and vote. I would hope that people come out and vote no because I think it's a very important battle to win because otherwise we're going to have an incredibly draconian anti-woman piece of legislation that I think is going to diminish all women in Ireland - their position in society and the constitutional status.

Ok, thank you very much indeed. Well we have now run out of time. Can I, on your behalf, thank our three panellists - Liz, Berry and Sinead - for answer your questions and indeed thank you for sending in so many questions on this complex issue. Now that's all for today from Dublin so thank you for joining us and good day.

See also:

06 Mar 02 | Europe
Irish hold key abortion vote
01 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
Irish abortion referendum 'flawed'
02 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
New abortion referendum proposed
27 May 01 | Northern Ireland
Bishop calls for abortion referendum
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