Former Fine Gael Senator Fidelma Healy Eames says she has no regrets about her No vote on abortion in 2013, resulting in her expulsion from the party.
Healy Eames made the comments in an interview published over the weekend in The Sunday Independent’s Life magazine, as she opened up about losing friends over the abortion issue, and the need for tolerance. Speaking to Gript, she described as “dictatorial” her expulsion from Fine Gael:
‘’What I do regret is that more compassion wasn’t shown to me (and others) by my party leader on what was a deeply personal issue for me and my family. In my view it was unfair to impose a Whip on an issue of conscience. I wasn’t given any choice, it was either vote with the party or there’s the door.
“It was a severely dictatorial move in what was meant to be a democracy. Ironically we were the only democracy in Western Europe at the time to impose a whip on issues of conscience,” she said.
Healy Eames was expelled from Fine Gael in July 2013, along with six other party members, for defying the party whip by voting against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, which introduced abortion under limited grounds, and paved the way for the referendum on the eighth amendment.
Speaking to The Sunday Independent’s Sarah Caden 10 years on from her expulsion from the party, Healy Eames said she had no regrets about voting against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. The adoptive mother of two also opened up about her path to parenthood, and how the lives of her children and the decision to choose life by their birth mothers continues to inform her pro-life beliefs.
“The big separation point for me was that vote on abortion,” she told the paper.
“I suppose the thing that really got me was that we have adopted both our children. We were honoured with their lives because their mothers chose adoption. How could I possibly turn around and vote for abortion and dishonour their lives and the choices their birth mothers made for them?”
Speaking to Gript after being contacted for comment, the party’s fomer Seanad spokesperson for social protection described as “cruel” Fine Gael’s refusal to give her a conscience vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.
The Act, which provides for abortion where medical practitioners certify “in good faith” that there is a “real and substantial risk” to the pregnant woman’s life, and that it is their reasonable opinion that this can only be averted by abortion, ultimately paved way for the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Since Repeal, an estimated 30,000 babies have had their lives ended by abortion in Ireland – including 8.500 abortions last year alone, representing a quarter-fold rise in the space of just 12 months.
Healy Eames, who returned to work in education and has just published a new book ‘The Gifted Learner: How to Help’ told The Independent that she “knows that she remains best known” as one of the seven Fine Gael members who were expelled from the party by Enda Kenny in 2013 for voting against the abortion law.
“My request for a personal vote was on conscience grounds given my personal family situation. On matters of conscience such as this, it was normal to be granted a ‘free vote’ in all Western democracies – but the party leader did not grant it to me. It was cruel.
“He should have listened, been more compassionate and taken people’s lived experiences into account,” she told Gript.
“What happened as a result of haemorrhaging seven Oireachtas members with this unfair measure were two things. Firstly, all future Fine Gael members were granted a free vote, and, secondly, Fianna Fail granted its members a free vote to prevent slippage,” she added. In many ways this is our legacy and for that I’m grateful.
“No politician should ever be put in this difficult situation again. Ironically, in 2011, our party circulated a pledge that we would not legislate for abortion. Myself and the six others that were expelled were the only ones to stand by this.”
Speaking about the treatment she received after voting against the abortion act, the former Fine Gael Seanad spokesperson for Education and Science recalled:
“From then on, you’d swear I was born in the dark ages. It was completely different. I can’t explain it. It was like you were [regarded as] backwards just because you held views that honoured the life of the mother and the child. There was little tolerance.”
Despite the pushback, Healy Eames refused to back down and change her position on abortion. She told the newspaper that she still stands by her actions.
While she remains at peace with her decision to hold firm, she says that other colleagues who voted for the abortion act against their personal positions “really struggled” as time went on, adding: “I saw some very sad people in the party.’’
She told the paper that she ended up losing friends over her views – but insisted there must be room for tolerance.
“I lost friends, female friends,” she said.
“I was shocked by this. I have a number of friends who don’t have the same views on everything, but I don’t walk away from them for that reason. It’s unfortunate, because I think there should be room for tolerance”.
The speaker and education coach, says she does not harbour resentment about it – but remains “concerned and confused” about how things played put. She said she might wish her political career had come to an end differently, and felt unfinished when she left politics.
She told the paper that ten years on, she has a greater understanding of what was said that first day she entered Leinster Housing, adding:
“When you’re in politics, it’s everything and all the time and there is no other world. Once you get in, you’re always worrying about when you might be out and it leaves little room for personal or family life”.
She now sees that there is “life after politics” and is more committed than ever to her original mission, which was always education and wellbeing.
Currently working in teacher education and as an independent education and careers’ consultant, she lives in MAREE, Oranmore in County Galway with her husband and family, and is an adoptive parent of two grown-up children. During the 2018 referendum to legalise abortion in Ireland, she founded ‘MyAdoptionStory.ie’ to advocate for adoption as an option in crisis pregnancies and appeared on national television to advocate for open adoption.
She also opened up about her path to parenthood during the interview, explaining how, after two unsuccessful rounds of IVF, she and her husband Michael decided to pursue adoption.
“If teaching had taught me one thing, it was that I could love any child and that was phenomenal,” she said. “That’s what got me through all of it”.
The couple adopted their son Niall in Ireland as a baby in 1994, and their daughter Ruth as a baby – in an international adoption – in 2000.
Recalling the couple’s experience of IVF prior to the adoptions, she said ‘’It was a horrific loss. We had an embryo(s) replaced, so we knew there was fertilisation, and then when it just breaks, it’s horrific. It was just awful.”
Healy Eames recalled how her own lived experience showed her how few children are available to adopt in Ireland.
“In the year we adopted Niall, there were only nine children available. He was a baby, three months, when we were matched with him. We didn’t get to meet him until he was four-and-a-half months, so that was tough’’.
“You didn’t know if you were coming or going. But I also think that by the time we adopted, we were very well prepared. We were very young as adoptive parents, so they kept sending us away, saying, ‘You’re not ready. You haven’t exhausted everything”.
Opening up about the adoption of their son, she recalled being in a restaurant in Clarinbridge when the call came that they had been matched with Niall.
No mobile phones then, she was called to the restaurant’s landline to be told they had been matched with a baby boy – which took them by surprise because they had “sculpted” a girl in their heads’’, she said.
To her amazement, the couple’s son was born on her husband Michael’s birthday – and was also called Michael. The couple decided to name him Niall Michael to avoid any confusion. A couple of years later they began the adoption process again for a second child.
“We were told we could be waiting forever, so we decided to go through the foreign adoption assessment,” she said.
They travelled to see Ruth, their daughter, when she was six months old and with a foster family. Out of respect for her daughter’s privacy and the fact that it is her life, she does not name the country she was adopted from. Three months after meeting their daughter, they took her home to Galway.
Healy Eames, who progressed from primary school teaching into lecturing in teacher education, and who holds a doctorate degree in education, says she remains very invested in special education. Her recent work with gifted children and young people, she says, has shown that they can often miss out on extra help because they are regarded as “too good” to need help, or because their giftedness is specific to one area and not all.
Reflecting on her time in politics, Healy-Eames, who started off her career being elected to the local council in 2004, recalled jokingly: “I think I thought politics was a noble profession. What do they say? Nothing is ever quite as it seems once you’re in there”.
Speaking of her time in the Seanad after she was elected in 2007 by sitting TDs and councillors, she recalled: “I liked the first term and I loved being close to the team. Then I ran in 2011 and that was a crushing defeat for me because I lost by 45 votes for the Dail seat, and that was Fine Gael’s big year. After another campaign, I got reelected to the Seanad.
“The first term I had been spokesperson for education and I really liked that. The second term as spokesperson for Social Protection was crushing with the impact of the Recession on people’s lives, their homes, businesses and all of the cuts affecting people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
The former Senator says that the 2013 vote on abortion was the “separation point” for her, especially as a mother of two adopted children, explaining:
“The big separation point for me was that vote on abortion. I suppose the thing that really got me was we have adopted both our children. We were honoured with their lives because their mothers chose adoption. How could I possibly vote for abortion and dishonour them and their birth mothers who gave them life?”
“So all I asked was a personal vote on conscience grounds. I was not granted that. I wasn’t asking to change the world out there on this issue; it was just that one day could you turn around to your children and say, ‘We’re lucky to have adopted both of you, both your birth mothers chose life, but look it, ‘I had to vote for abortion’? I would like the then party leader to put himself in my shoes and consider that.’’
Healy Eames, who was involved with The Reform Alliance following her expulsion from the party, ultimately ended her political career when she decided against running for the Seanad as an Independent in 2016.
She explained, “You won’t beat parties. They’re massive machines.”
She said she does not harbour any regrets or bitterness, and continues to enjoy a successful career in education as the director of her own consultancy business, Study and Careers studyandcareers.ie
“I’m in a place that’s less about striving any more, and more about fulfilment,” she said.