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Dublin: 10 °C Sunday 21 September, 2014

Abortion hearings: Cases referred abroad because of ‘legal uncertainty’

The Institute of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists said it is very important for doctors to have legal clarity when a termination or very premature delivery of a baby is required.

Chief executive Niall Behan of the Irish Family Planning Association
Chief executive Niall Behan of the Irish Family Planning Association
Image: Wanderley Massafelli/Photocall Ireland

THE OIREACHTAS COMMITTEE on Health and Children has heard that a number of medical cases involving pregnant women have been referred overseas because of the legal vacuum surrounding the issue of terminations in Ireland.

Professor Fionnuala McAuliffe of the Institute of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists told the Seanad chamber that she is aware of patients who have been referred abroad for treatment because of “a bit of legal uncertainty”.

She explained that in emergency situations, where a woman’s life is in imminent danger, doctors in Ireland “press on” with treatment. The difficulty arises when the risk to life is not immediate.

Professor Richard Greene of Maternal Death Enquiry added that that it was easy to make decisions when someone is about to die – what is not easy is when the threat is somewhere down the road.

Asked for more detail by a number of TDs and senators, McAuliffe cited one incident where a woman was referred to the UK for an abortion. She then returned to Ireland for further care. However, there is no registry of such events or specific annual data.

The Institute of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists reiterated its wish for “robust legal framework” on the issue of terminations when the life of the mother is at risk.

Earlier sentiments from the masters of Ireland’s maternity hospitals – that it is very important for doctors to have legal clarity when a termination or very premature delivery of a baby is required – were echoed during this evening’s hearing.

McAuliffe said that obstetricians will not work with percentages or timelines, something she described as impossible. The test applied will be a medical one, she said, adding that it is the Institute’s view that if two obstetricians believe there is a risk to the pregnant woman’s life, then that is sufficient. Legislation should cover all situations where there is a risk, she concluded.

Professor McAuliffe also noted her organisation’s wish to see the laws pertaining to abortion in the 1861 Offences Against the State Act repealed. Chairman Professor Robert Harrison concluded the meeting with a request for the Department of Health to engage with the representative body as it drafts relevant legislation and regulation.

Also speaking at this evening’s hearing were Niall Behan and Dr Caitriona Henchion of the Irish Family Planning Association. They came under fire over a recently revealed investigation into the organisation’s counselling services but committee chair Jerry Buttimer would not allow any questions on the subject.

The Oireachtas hearings on planned abortion legislation continue from 9.30am tomorrow.

Explainer: why the Oireachtas is holding three days of hearings on abortion

As it happened: Oireachtas hearings on planned abortion law

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