COMMENT: "I was deeply opposed to abortion in all circumstances but three turning points changed my mind"
"I was always taught to make up my own mind."
By Jonathan O'Brien, who is a Sinn Féin TD for Cork North Central since 2011.
Going into the Oireachtas committee I had my own personal views, but I went in with an open mind. I think that is the important thing. Although I have many personal and deeply held views on issues, I have always left those at the door of Dáil Éireann; my role as a legislator and representative of the people is to listen to evidence and expert advice and make the best decision for my constituents.
I went through a similar process with the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in 2013. I was personally opposed to the Act but I voted in favour of it. This was highly publicised at the time. My upbringing and background is one where my family puts a lot of focus on the teachings of the Catholic Church. Not a dogmatic approach by any means, but we are traditional in our outlook. All parents teach their children certain values. As part of that, my parents and grandparents always taught me to speak my own mind. More importantly, to make up my own mind. These values have shaped me and I still live by them.
Until the committee I would have described myself as pro-life, that is, deeply opposed to abortion in all circumstances. Over the course of the committee, however, there were 3 turning points that made me look at my position and realise that life is not black and white. For pregnant women life can be very complicated, and as legislators we need to accept the reality and prevent people from being harmed.
The first thing that changed things for me was the abortion pill. I didn’t realise that women could go online and buy these drugs and have them delivered in the post. I had heard the term previously but didn’t know how widespread it was. What bothered me about it is the idea that women in crisis pregnancies are taking pills ordered online and there is no way for them to know what’s in them. This is too great of a risk for women, and I couldn’t stand over this happening without medical assistance. The only reason someone would do that is desperation, and if the Eighth Amendment is putting people into situations where they act out of desperation then this part of the Constitution cannot be stood over.
The second thing that changed my mind was evidence from medical experts. If it was my daughter or my mother in a hospital bed in the morning and a doctor couldn’t help them I couldn’t fathom that situation. How could I allow this to continue?
I was deeply moved by testimony from the parents of babies with fatal foetal abnormalities. These parents were really looking forward to having children, and they had no option to do what was best for their children. As a parent I couldn’t help but be moved by their experiences and want to help them. The main thing they wanted from reliving their painful memories was that this would not happen to another family.
There is a lot of talk of ‘hard cases’ and a lot of people asking if there is any other way. Believe me, we looked at this on the committee, and if there was any other way then a lot of members of the committee would have gone for that. This came up in bills to help people with Fatal Foetal Abnormalities that were introduced to the Dáil. The Attorney General told us that under the Eighth Amendment even this could not be done. There is no other way to help these people, we have to remove the Eighth Amendment.
I don’t agree with the idea that politicians can’t be trusted. What is frustrating for me is politicians saying this as well. I take my role as a legislator very seriously. If you are not willing to legislate on behalf of citizens then don’t stand for election. We are quite capable of making hard decisions, even if they are deeply unpopular with some. The important thing is to listen to people and make decisions in people’s best interests.
I have been on a journey with this issue, and I am happy that I have kept an open mind. I have always spoken my own mind, but I always listen to people and try to do what is best to help people. I know a lot of people are torn on this and I have been torn myself, but what I would say to people who are unsure is imagine if it was your daughter, or your mother or your niece lying in a hospital bed and the doctor says the law is stopping them from helping people. What would you do for your own family?
Jonathan O'Brien is Sinn Féin TD for Cork North Central since 2011, and Sinn Féin Junior Spokesperson on Finance and Public Expenditure & Reform. He was a member of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which reported in December 2017.