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13 things we learned from the Oireachtas abortion hearings this week

Three days of hearings on abortion were held by the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children this week ahead of expected and long-awaited legislation for the X Case.

Image: Screengrab

ABORTION REMAINS ONE of the most contentious and divisive issues in Irish society and at the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children this week it was no different.

Though three days of hearings on how the government should go about legislating for the X Case were calm, tolerant, informative, interesting and even revelatory in some parts there was no denying that there was some stark differences of opinion.

The committee, which based itself in the Seanad chamber for the three days, heard from medical and legal experts before advocacy groups and the churches came in to have their say on the government’s decision to legislate for the Supreme Court ruling in the X Case 20 years ago.

TheJournal.ie was liveblogging days one, two, and three and we summed-up the main points from each day but in case you missed that here are 13 things we learned from the past week.

1. Suicide is the most contentious issue in the debate

The X Case judgement provides for abortion in Ireland where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the woman including from the risk of suicide. But the inclusion of suicide has proved troublesome for many with fears that it will lead to women claiming they are suicidal in order to obtain an abortion.

Dr Berry Kiely, from the Pro Life Campaign, expressed the view that abortion is not a remedy for suicide and said  that abortion is associated with an increased risk of suicide. Her colleague Caroline Simons said that the belief of medics was that abortion was never a treatment for suicidality.

But the view of legal experts was that suicide must be included in legislation because this is the current law of the land. “To question its justification [as a reason for carrying out an abortion] is to stigmatise mental health,” Jennifer Schweppe, from the University of Limerick, told the Committee.

2. There is no consensus among psychiatrists

If suicide is the most troubling issue then problems may arise from the fact that psychiatrists – who will be expected to assess the risk – are not in agreement on whether or not legislation will lead, in time, to widespread availability of abortion in Ireland.

Professor Patricia Casey told the committee that many pregnant women who have suicidal feelings will go to their GPs who will “in good faith” refer these women to psychiatrists for assessment but then, she said, the system would be criticised for being “cumbersome” and “in due course will be opened up”.

Her fellow psychiatrist – and one of only three perinatal psychiatrists in the country – Dr Anthony McCarthy disagreed saying that pregnant women who feel suicidal would still be more likely to travel to the UK. The strictness of the legislation would mean “they [women] are not going to come near us”.

Dr McCarthy said that psychiatrists were still best-placed to assess the risk of suicide though acknowledged that it was not an exact science. Professor Casey was more blunt, saying “we are wrong more often than we are right”.

3. Doctors fear prosecution

The one quote that people will remember from the hearings is that of Dr Rhona Mahoney (above) from the National Maternity Hospital who told the Committee on Tuesday: “I want to know that I will not go to jail and I want to know that she [the woman being treated] will not go to jail”. She was referring to sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which she wanted repealed.

Legal experts agreed on the need to repeal sections of the 1861 Act which criminalises abortion and puts in place the threat that doctors and women could go to prison. Furthermore, pro-choice activists described the particular sections as “chilling” and “redundant”.

But pro-life activist and barrister Maria Steen argued that the 1861 law does have an important effect in deterring backstreet abortions while at the same time doctors are protected as long as they act in good faith.

4. Legislation for X is already drafted

Rarely has there been a more detailed submission to an Oireachtas committee than that of Dr Simon Mills – a doctor, a barrister and possibly the most qualified man in the country – who brought with him a draft of a bill to legislate for abortion in Ireland under the terms of X.

He admitted that the details of his Termination of Pregnancy Bill were “a first stab” but policy makers will certainly glean a lot from his submission which his fellow legal experts appearing before the committee believed was sufficient to allow for abortion while at the same time prevent the ‘floodgates’ from opening.

5. People are worried about ‘floodgates’

Speaking of which, several TDs and Senators expressed concerns that legislating for abortion under the terms of the X Case will lead to the ‘opening of the floodgates’ and sought reassurances from witnesses that this would not happen. Legal experts said it would not, doctors said it would not. But others, Professor William Binchy (below), Professor Casey, and the pro-life activists argued that it would.

6. The Constitution already allows for abortion of non-viable pregnancies

The Committee heard that the Constitution allows for abortions to be carried out in cases where a foetus has no prospect of survival outside of the womb.

This potentially revelatory disclosure was made by Schweppe, from UL, who cited a ruling in the Roche v Roche case in 2009. In this case the Supreme Court ruled that a separated woman did not have the right to use embryos which had been frozen after being fertilised with sperm from her estranged husband.

Schweppe and her fellow legal experts argued that the ruling meant that an entity is not capable of life outside the womb was not covered by the 8th Amendment which recognises the right to life of the unborn. Schweppe expressed the belief that where the “foetus has no capacity to survive outside the womb”, it does not fall under the definition of ‘life’.

7. There are a small number of abortions in Ireland every year

Very little is known about how many abortions are carried out in Ireland every year which is why figures provided by some of the masters of the maternity hospitals this week were particularly interesting.

Dr Sam Coulter Smith from Rotunda Hospital in Dublin said there had been six terminations in the Rotunda last year in order to save the life of the mother. Dr Mahony from National Maternity Hospital said there were three terminations in her hospital last year where the woman’s life was at risk and the foetus was not viable.

She also said that two women in Ireland took their own lives while pregnant between 2009 and 2011 and she estimated on a national scale that between 10 and 20 abortions are carried out each year in Ireland.

8. The middle ground

Dr Mills, from the Law Library, made a salient point during his appearance on Wednesday when he identified what he termed the middle ground on abortion. Rather then there being people who solely and avidly pro-life and avidly pro-choice there are also those who come down somewhere in the middle and believe legislating for X is right.

In her appearance, the former Supreme Court justice Catherine McGuinness also identified the “middle ground” and encouraged legislators to acknowledge it. “Think about the middle ground, the majority of the constituents,” she told TDs and Senators.

9. We could satisfy the ECHR without legislation

The government has committed to legislation and regulations but that has not prevented some from telling the Committee this week that they could instead satisfy the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in A, B, and C versus Ireland by introducing regulations alone.

Professor Bincy said that clarity could be brought by protocols and standards and these would satisfy the ECHR. This was a view echoed by the Catholic Bishop of Elphin Dr Christopher Jones who said “appropriate guidelines” would be sufficient.

Much of the medical and legal evidence disagreed with this assessment.

10. Most religious groups favour X Case legislation

Except for the Catholic Church and the Islamic Cultural Centre, all of the religious groups who appeared before the Committee on Thursday expressed the view that legislation for the X Case should be implemented in full.

The Church of Ireland, Archbishop Michael Jackson said the current state of affairs is “unfair” to both women and medical professionals. Heidi Good of the Methodist Church and Trevor Morrow, from the Presbyterian Church, echoed this view. Morrow pointed out that abortion is being practised in Ireland today – otherwise members of the medical profession would not be seeking to protect people.

Though not religious, Atheist Ireland’s Michael Nugent (above) – who appeared with the churches – pointed out that “our laws should not be based on other people’s religious beliefs.”

11. The Catholic Church wants another referendum

Bishop Jones said on Thursday that the government should consider a referendum to overturn the X Case ruling if not regulations that would “continue to exclude the direct and intentional killing of the unborn”.

12. Legislating for X won’t stop people from travelling to the UK

Appearing on Tuesday, Dr McCarthy from the College of Psychiatrists said that he did not believe that a huge number of women would be approaching him or his colleagues seeking abortions in the event of legislation. The vast majority will continue to travel to the UK in his belief because of the strict criteria that must be satisfied in order for a woman to access a termination in Ireland.

13. We should have more Oireachtas hearings like these

Informative and detailed yet at the same time well-structured and on-time. There were no lengthy four-hour sessions, running over with politicians engaging in lengthy, grandstanding speeches for the purposes of getting a few seconds on the news or Oireachtas Report. Each session was two hours long and each contained a wealth of questioning and answering resulting in a whole lot of information coming out.

Chairman Jerry Buttimer was exemplary in keeping TDs and Senators in check and ensuring they did not engage in the kind of point-scoring excercises they are fond of. Of course the subject matter also contributed to this but even those on the extremes of the abortion debate were relatively measured and calm in their questioning all of the witnesses.

We’d sure like to see more of this but we’re not holding our breath.

(All images: Screengrabs via Oireachtas.ie)

Tuesday: 10 interesting moments from the Oireachtas hearings on abortion

Wednesday: 10 interesting moments from the Oireachtas hearings on abortion

Thursday: 10 interesting moments from the Oireachtas hearings on abortion

Read all of TheJournal.ie’s coverage of the abortion hearings >

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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