Minister Simon Harris has now a more fleshed out version of the upcoming abortion law and it is even worse than the previous the more bare-bones heads of legislation published a few months ago.
The new General Scheme contains three significant changes: it narrows the scope of conscientious objection, it gives a more limited definition of viability post-birth, and it extends the demarcation of ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ for several weeks past birth.
In March, just before the abortion referendum, Minister Harris had proposed a scheme of a bill that would allow abortion up to 12 weeks for any reason, and after that if there is a risk of serious harm to the mental or physical health of the mother. (This is more or less the same ground as in Britain where there is effectively abortion-on-demand).
In the new scheme there is a new head (allowing payment of advisory services), some minor adjustments and at least three important changes.
Viability, in the old scheme, was defined as the point in a pregnancy at which the foetus is “capable of sustained survival outside the uterus” (Head 1). In the new definition it is the point at which the foetus is “capable of survival outside the uterus without extraordinary life-sustaining measures” (Head 1).
This means that abortion will be allowed even when the foetus could survive outside the womb with the help of extraordinary life-sustaining measures. In other words, the new scheme makes it even easier than under the original plan to abort a child with a life-limiting condition.
With regard to fatal abnormality, the previous scheme allowed abortion where the condition “is likely to lead to the death of the foetus either before birth or shortly after birth” (Head 6). In the new scheme, “shortly after birth” is substituted with “within 28 days of birth”. This means that the expected fatality of the condition is now extended from birth to a month after birth, which is like saying that not only the children who are likely to die at birth, but even those who might otherwise live for a month, can be aborted. And note, the word is ‘likely’. What does ‘likely’ mean? Does it mean greater than 50pc, 70pc, 90pc? Who can make such a calculation?
The new scheme also restricts conscientious objection more than the heads of the legislation intended. The old scheme provided that doctors, nurses or midwives were not obliged “to carry out, or to assisting in carrying out, a termination of pregnancy” (Head 15). The new scheme says “to carry out, or to participate in carrying out” (Head 15).
This change implies that the objecting medical professionals will be exempted from participation but not from assistance. Assistance could mean helping to prepare a woman for an abortion rather than participating in the abortion itself.
The new scheme also fails to extend, as it was requested by representatives of the medical profession, the right of conscientious objection to institutions such as hospitals, clinics, etc. Instead, it allows only individuals to avail of this right. It also obliges doctors to make arrangements for the transfer of care of the pregnant woman, which is a form of indirect participation that many health professionals abhor. They want the unborn child to be cared for as well and do not want to refer to a doctor who feels no such duty of care.
We need to remember that this is only a draft of the Bill. In presenting the scheme, Minister Harris has promised a number of other provisions to be included in the future, such as the introduction of exclusion zones, which will ban vigils or protests outside abortion venues. We wait to see what else he has planned, but his latest version of legislation goes even further than his earlier proposal.