THE MASTER OF Ireland’s busiest maternity hospital has reiterated his profession’s calls for more legal clarity on terminating a pregnancy when the mother’s life is at risk.
Speaking at the Irish Medical Organisation’s annual conference yesterday, Dr Sam Coulter-Smith of the Rotunda Hospital said obstetricians would welcome legislation to back up current Medical Council guidelines.
He said the current debate comes at a “tragic time” after events in Galway saw Savita Halappanavar, a 30-year-old dentist, die after contracting blood poisoning during pregnancy.
“The events in Galway focus our minds on exactly how difficult this situation can be,” Dr Coulter-Smith told an audience during a session entitled Medical Ethical issues from the Beginning to the End of Life.
He described the current legal situation as “confusing” as it includes “extremely old” statutes, case law and guidelines that don’t necessarily agree at all times.
“Is there a need for legislation?” he asked. “This has led to enormous amount of debate. On the positive side, we as a profession would like some clarity and some comfort from the fact that what we do is covered by legislation. We’d like legislation to back up the Medical Council Guidelines.”
On the issue of suicide, the master said he does not believe it should be mentioned in any law. “I think we should leave it broad,” he explained. “Legislation needs to be short, clear, it needs to take into account that there will be advances in medical technology.”
Earlier he said that “most people accept that termination is not treatment for suicide ideation”.
Dr Coulter-Smith stressed current guidelines ensure all efforts are made to save the baby if the mother’s life is at risk but added there is a “grey area” in some emergency situations when the foetus is at the 24-week mark. Before 23 weeks, foetuses will not survive and after 25 or 26 weeks, there can be up to a 90 per cent survival rate but the 24 mark is an unknown.
The management of such cases depends on the severity of the maternal condition. He said there would then be issues and questions to be answered around procedures, decision-making and appeals.
He also called for new terminology to be used, stating that he did not believe the termination of a wanted pregnancy because of risk to life should be called an abortion.