Minister of State outlines to the Dáil that the Government will support the passage of a cross-party Private Members’ Bill on Symphysiotomy

I welcome the opportunity to address the House to summarise the main points on this important issue from the Government’s perspective. First, and most importantly, the Government has given its support to the passage of Deputy Ó Caoláin’s Bill.

This support gives a strong message to the women involved that we wish and intend to bring closure to this dreadful chapter in the history of our health services, and will not block any feasible route to resolution. More importantly, we wish to bring closure and resolution for the women and their families.


The Minister said last night that he has been advised that there are flaws in the proposed legislation, and it may be open to constitutional and other legal challenges. However, I assure the House that we will work with the Department of Justice and Equality, and the Office of the Attorney General to address these challenges. Those legal and constitutional issues and the means by which they need to be resolved can be addressed on Committee Stage. I again emphasise that the Government does not oppose and is supporting the passage of the Bill on Second Stage. Committee Stage is the appropriate environment and context to tease out those issues. Deputy Pringle and others asked what the perceived flaws are. I do not have time to address those this evening in my closing speech other than to assure the House that they will be addressed and can be teased out and debated on Committee Stage.


As the Minister expressed unambiguously last night, there is a clear commitment on the part of Government to address this situation. Indeed, all parties in the House have acknowledged that symphysiotomy has been the cause of great distress and pain for those women who underwent the procedure, many of whom without their consent, for years after it had ceased being practised in other jurisdictions.


The first priority of the health system is to continue to ensure that the greatest possible supports and appropriate health services are available to women who have health problems as a result of having undergone this procedure. This is happening through the HSE and the Minister outlined the range of services provided, which are co-ordinated through a national lead officer for symphysiotomy and regional liaison officers. In circumstances where there is any doubt about this or any concern about access to those services, liaison officers are available to be contacted and to assist in addressing any such issues.


It is important to reassure women in general that Ireland has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates and perinatal mortality rates in the world. It is also important to emphasise that we are recognised internationally as leaders in the field of obstetrics. However, there is no room for complacency and there are continuing important developments based on the new multidisciplinary clinical programmes being put in place by the HSE and the Department. These clinical programmes are patient focused, generally include patient representatives - as is correct and proper - and are led by senior clinicians. In addition, the Minister referred to the new patient safety initiative, the national early warning score for Ireland. The early warning scores for obstetric patients have different points for escalation of care. The maternity early warning scores were issued to maternity units in early April and are in the process of being implemented.


There is also the national group established by the HSE to oversee the implementation of the recommendations arising from the investigation team’s draft report into the death of Ms Savita Halappanavar. These initiatives demonstrate the commitment of the Minister to ensure that the best possible care is available to patients, particularly maternity patients.


Prior to the publication of this Bill the Minister was already endeavouring to bring the issue of symphysiotomy to a satisfactory and fair conclusion. The report on the first stage of independent research, commissioned by the Department’s chief medical officer into the practice of symphysiotomy in Ireland in 2011, was made widely available by the researcher for consultation during mid-2012. This consultation involved patient groups, health professionals and in particular the women themselves. There may have been some suggestion, perhaps unwitting, given in the course of the debate that this was not so. The consultation involved patient groups, health professionals and, in particular, the women themselves. The report will provide crucial information and insights arising from the researcher’s conversations with women who have been affected and those involved in their care.


The second stage of the research report has been completed by the researcher in recent weeks and, in line with best practice, has been sent for peer review. It is expected that this process will be completed next month and the final report will then be submitted to the Minister. There can be no reasonable concern that the Walsh report would in any way delay the passage of this Bill. It will be available to the Minister next month and will help him to formulate proposals to Government on the best way forward to deal with the matter.


Even though Government is not persuaded that the particular course proposed by Deputy Ó Caoláin of lifting the bar on the Statute of Limitations will resolve the problems facing the women who wish to bring their cases to the courts, in order to demonstrate commitment and respect for the women and to move towards closure on the matter, the Government is supporting Deputy Ó Caoláin’s Bill. I congratulate him, his colleagues and all involved in the all-party group in respect of this. There will be legal and constitutional issues, which will require broader consideration and the Bill as it stands may not meet the stated objectives for the women concerned. However, I emphasise that the most important goal now is that this situation is brought to an appropriate and fair conclusion for all the women involved.


I also salute and congratulate the women who have brought their campaign to the people and ultimately to the Oireachtas. They have succeeded in doing that and have also another unique achievement in uniting every Member of the House, which is very rare. They have been tenacious, dignified and resolute. For our part we must now respond and respond we will as quickly as possible.