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10 interesting moments from the Oireachtas hearings on abortion

Tuesday was one of the more interesting days in the world of Oireachtas committees. Here’s what’s happened in 10 quick points.

Image: Screengrab via Oireachtas website

YESTERDAY WAS ONE of the more interesting days in the world of Oireachtas committees.

Firstly, it was unusual just by dint of its sheer size: taking advantage of the fact that the Oireachtas is still technically on Christmas holidays, the hearings on how Ireland should legislate for abortion took place in the Seanad, instead of the usual more modestly-sized committee room.

These hearings are big. They’re taking place over three full days (i.e. not just one or two meetings over an afternoon – instead, there were four meetings yesterday, three today and a further three tomorrow). In the world of Oireachtas committees, this is unprecedented.  Lots of TDs and Senators who weren’t on the Committee on Health and Children turned up to take notes and ask questions of the invited medical professionals about how exactly Ireland should act to implement the findings of the ABC judgment on abortion.

We liveblogged everything as it happened yesterday but in case you missed it, here are 10 of the most interesting moments from the Committee on Tuesday.

1. The facts and figures

Dr Sam Coulter Smith of the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin told the Committee there had been six terminations in the Rotunda last year in order to save the life of the mother. Dr Rhona Mahony (pictured) of the National Maternity Hospital said there were three terminations in the hospital last year where the woman’s life was at risk and the foetus was not viable. Two women in Ireland took their own lives while pregnant between 2009 and 2011, according to Dr Mahony.

In a debate that can frequently become emotive and not based on evidence, hard facts about the exact situation on whether abortions in Ireland are carried out can be difficult to come by – making the contributions from the doctors particularly compelling viewing.

2. Deaths because of current abortion laws

More facts and figures: the head of the Irish Medical Council said he did not know of any maternal deaths which have happened because of Ireland’s current abortion regime.

3. Doctors are worried about doing jail time

One issue that repeatedly came up when doctors spoke was the fear of jail time because of the lack of clarity in the law. It doesn’t matter that no-one has been sent to jail under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, Dr Rhona Mahony told the Committee – the issue is that doctors perceive that there is a significant risk that either they or the woman involved could be sent to jail for a procedure which the doctor may carry out in good faith as the right thing to do to save a woman’s life.

4. Yes, doctors refer women to other countries for abortions

Professor Fionnuala McAuliffe confirmed what has long been suspected: there have been cases where doctors have referred women to have terminations abroad because of “a bit of legal uncertainty here”. She said this was most likely to take place where the woman’s life may have been in danger (but not immediate danger). She described one particular case where a woman was sent to the UK for an abortion and returned to Ireland for further care.

5. Can doctors conscientiously object to abortions?

The Irish Medical Council said any legislation should allow doctors to exercise the right to conscientious objection when it comes to a termination – as long as it is balanced against the right of the patient to be treated, particularly in an emergency. The implication was that a doctor can only cite a conscientious objection if an alternative doctor is available and can act with appropriate speed. The IMC was responding to one sentence in the expert report stemming from the ABC judgment which suggested that a doctor’s right to a conscientious objection is not absolute.

6.  Why the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act should be repealed

Throughout the hearings, a significant number of medical professionals called for the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act – which makes abortion a felony and criminalises both the woman who undergoes one and the doctor who performs the procedure - to be repealed. Dr Anthony McCarthy of the College of Psychiatry Ireland said his obstetric colleagues will feel “very exposed” if the Act is not abandoned.

7. Division among the psychiatrists

It quickly became clear when the five psychiatrists spoke that there were major differences of opinion between them. Professor Patricia Casey of the Mater Hospital in Dublin and the Iona Institute said legislation for the X Case would lead to “widespread abortion within a short period of time”. The other psychiatrists disagreed. This led to some clear tensions, as the psychiatrists spent time clarifying what their professional colleague said rather than answering questions from Oireachtas members.

8. Ireland has a distinct lack of perinatal psychiatrists

Of the 19 maternity hospitals in Ireland, only three have perinatal psychiatrists – and they’re all in Dublin.

9. The religious ethos of a hospital doesn’t matter when it comes to treatment

On the issue of whether the religious ethos of a hospital could come into play when treatment is being decided for a woman whose life is in danger, the doctors who spoke were very clear that it does not not. “We practice according to clinical demand,” said Dr Rhona Mahony. “It is a science”. What was unspoken here was Ireland’s treatment in the past of women who died because of their treatment while pregnant, including Sheila Hodgers in Dundalk in 1983 and, more recently, the allegation that Savita Halappanavar was told that Ireland “is a Catholic country” when she reportedly requested a medical termination.

10. Jerry Buttimer is a tough but fair chairman

Oireachtas committees are a great place for people who like the sound of their own voices. Meandering points which take five minutes to actually become a question and TDs and Senators who are sweetly oblivious of the idea of time constraints mean committees can often become a swirling mass of waffle.

Not so under the stewardship of committee chair Jerry Buttimer. Each of the four sessions began and ended exactly on time. He politely but firmly smacked down members who tried to go off-topic (he told one Senator that he was “out of order” and being “unfair to the witness” when he tried to raise an adjacent topic). Questions were kept (relatively) brief and everyone who wanted to got time to speak.

And it worked. There were some excellent questions and responses and the debate remained civilised (at least, for the most part).

All in all, unprecedented. More of this in the Oireachtas, please.

(All images: Screengrabs via Oireachtas.ie)

As it happened: Oireachtas hearings on planned abortion law >

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