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Doctor who led Savita inquiry: 'Ireland can't depend on UK for 3,000 abortions a year'

“If I’m the Irish government, I should take responsibility for Irish women,” Professor Arulkumaran told TheJournal.ie.

Image: Shutterstock/graphbottles

THE PROFESSOR WHO led the inquiry into the death of Savita Halappanavar has said the Irish government has a duty to provide reproductive healthcare to women in Ireland, and shouldn’t shirk that responsibility to authorities in Britain.

“The international view is that Ireland is not considering women’s health and rights because of a barrier of thinking,” Professor Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran told TheJournal.ie, “…and they have a safeguard, because women are going to the UK to get it done.”

The latest figures from the UK government show that 3,265 women from Ireland had termination procedures in England and Wales last year; in 2015 that figure was 3,451.

If I’m the Irish government, I should take responsibility for Irish women.
I don’t shift the responsibility to England, nor to I shift it to the individual woman.

He was speaking in Dublin yesterday as part of a panel discussion with medical experts, which was organised by the All-Party Oireachtas Interest Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, which is chaired by Limerick TD and former education minister Jan O’Sullivan.

Among the issues discussed at the talk were figures that indicate 80% of terminations on women from Ireland and performed in the UK are done surgically – where 80% of abortions performed on British women are medical, meaning a pill is used instead of surgery.

Medical abortions usually involve less complications, but require the woman to wait 48 hours before being cleared, which complicates things for Irish women.

In response to the event, the Life Institute called the Oireachtas Committee on Abortion “a farce”, due to Jan O’Sullivan, who is a member of that committee, chairing the discussion yesterday.

The pro-life institute has previously criticised the committee for having too many pro-choice members.

Niamh Uí Bhriain of the Life Institute said that the title of the seminar – ‘Reforming Ireland’s Abortion Laws: Drawing on international best practice to develop women-centred healthcare’ – was “a joke”.

“Abortion isn’t healthcare, and it is certainly not women-centred healthcare, either for the baby girls whose lives are ended or for the women who are hurt by abortion.”

Jan O’Sullivan responded to the comments by saying she was at the conference as chair of the All-Party Oireachtas Interest Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, and would “make no apologies” for her participation.

Inquiry and inaction

Professor Arulkumaran - the former president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists - said that the illegality of abortion in Ireland complicates medical decisions as was the case with Savita Halappanavar.

“The medical staff were concentrating on the baby’s heartbeat because, they thought if they carried out the termination [someone] might find fault with them, and they might go to jail for 13 years.

You need a medical recommendation that is clear that if there’s a threat to a woman’s life, the person who is best to make that decision is the doctor by the side of the patient.

In response to the link between abortion and best medical practice, Professor Arulkumaran says that it’s not about making decisions for patients, but about informing the public and giving them time to make their own decision.

Among the figures women should be made aware of, in his opinion, is research from the World Health Organisation (WHO):

“If a woman has a termination done within 9-10 weeks, the chance of something going wrong and her dying is 0.1 per 100,000.

“But if the same woman carries through pregnancy and delivers the baby, her chances of dying are 10 per 100,000, which is 100 per million, and this is a gradual scale, the later you do a termination it approaches that.”

So there’s 100 times less risk in terminating a pregnancy before 12 weeks, compared to carrying the pregnancy through according to the WHO, he says.

He said that the issue of abortion was a social and a human rights issue.

“Irish women are denied the rights of sexual reproductive health, compared to their sisters in Britain, and if you’re a poor human in Ireland then you are treated differently [when it comes to abortion].

It is a public health issue because if they get it done illegally and if they have infection or bleeding, they come to the hospitals here anyhow.

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The medical profession

Professor Arulkumaran said the medical profession in Ireland should be more involved in the discussion around abortion.

“There’s inactivity on the part of the politicians, where they don’t know how to set about it, but also inactivity on the part of the health community as such.

For example, if you take the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in England, they have guidelines on abortion, they promote abortion as a human rights issue and so on.

“But nothing is done in Ireland by the similar body because for concern that they might be antagonised or whatever it is, I don’t know [why].

“But that is a conversation we should have.”

He said that ideally, a law association and a medical association would get together in Ireland to discuss how to advise the government.

Thinking that someone else is going to do it – it’s not going to happen. We need to take responsibility – both the medical and the legal profession, as we have the evidence.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris have both publicly declared their willingness to see a referendum on abortion next year.

Arulkumaran says that according to surveys conducted in Brazil, Portugal and elsewhere, views on abortion are dramatically different depending on whether the question is asked from a personal perspective.

“All people have their personal views – ‘I don’t want a termination done because of this’.

“But when it comes to your daughter or your wife: ‘Would you get it done?’ Then they say yes. So in simple terms, when it affects them individually or to their close ones, then their view changes a little bit.”

Yesterday, the Citizen’s Assembly published additional recommendations on the Eighth Amendment, which were previously unseen.

Read: 25 legal abortions were carried out in Ireland in 2016

Read: Brid Smith: ‘I had an abortion… I’ve never felt ashamed about it’

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