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12 interesting moments from the Oireachtas abortion hearings

Heckling, James Reilly leaving early, and questions about term limits on abortion – the first day of the Oireachtas hearings on abortion legislation had a lot of drama. Here’s what happened.

The hearings yesterday
The hearings yesterday
Image: Screengrab via Oireachtas website

THE HEARINGS ON the planned abortion legislation which began in the Oireachtas yesterday were always likely to be antagonistic – but perhaps not quite as antagonistic as they turned out to be.

The initial hearings in January were marked by a cautious degree of respect from all sides, shepherded over by Oireachtas Health Committee chair Jerry Buttimer, who fought to ensure civility throughout the hearings.

However the intervening four months -which have seen the publication of the draft laws which indicate how Ireland will legislate for the X case – have also seen an increase in the temperature of the various campaigns, which was reflected in Friday’s hearings.

The hearings are intensive. Friday’s session began at 9.30am and ran for almost eleven hours. Monday and Tuesday’s sessions will run even longer. There were four separate sessions before TDs and Senators:

  • The overview of the draft legislation from the Minister for Health and senior civil servants
  • Regulatory and representative bodies, including the IMO, the Irish Council of General practitioners and the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists
  • Obstetric care at larger hospitals, with the Masters of the Rotunda and the National Maternity Hospital speak
  • Obstetric care at other hospitals around the country, including doctors from hospitals in Kerry, Limerick, Drogheda and Ballinasloe.

We liveblogged everything as it happened yesterday but here are the most interesting moments to catch up on.

1. James Reilly left after his statement and didn’t take questions

Minister for Health James Reilly was the first person to speak in the morning, telling the session that the feedback from the committee – which is due at the end of May – will be used as the government drafts the final legislation. He went through the Heads of the Bill (i.e. the draft legislation as it looks right now) and said that the legislation was going to clarify what is already lawfully available in Ireland. And then, after a brief 20 minutes, he left the chamber.

TDs and Senators were angry. Billy Timmins – who is a member of Fine Gael along with the Minister – said he did not know what could be more important for James Reilly than attending the hearing. Fine Gael Senator Paul Bradford said it was “bizarre” that the Minister left the chamber. It was to no avail though. The remainder of the session was left to the head of the Department of Health and Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer.

2. The Department of Health will be told about any abortions

One of the few things that the Minister for Health said was that his department will be notified when a medical procedure permitted under the Protection of Life during Pregnancy legislation is carried out. He said that the women involved will not be identified.

3. Conscientious objection cannot be invoked by hospitals

Individual doctors will be able to make a conscientious objection to carrying out an abortion, but must pass the case on to another colleague. Hospitals will not be able to claim collective conscientious objection, James Reilly said – which was clearly a reference to questions about the ethos of Ireland’s Catholic-run hospitals.

4. Abortions will only be carried out in hospitals

One TD had questioned whether clinics will be able to carry out terminations, given that the bill uses the broad phrase “appropriate location” to describe where the medical procedures will be carried out. Dr Tony Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, said only hospitals governed by HIQA will be able to carry out terminations, and this does not include most clinics.

5. Doctors will make the call on the time-frame

Dr Tony Holohan noted that there has been a lot of discussion in recent weeks about how the proposed bill doesn’t say anything about term limits – in other words, how many weeks the woman may be pregnant in order to still be able to procure an abortion. Holohan said doctors are in the best position to make calls on viability and so it is better not to enshrine time frames in legislation. He said that this will not lead to late-term abortions. His position was echoed by Dr Sam Coulter-Smyth of the Rotunda Hospital, who agreed that there should be no gestational limit in the legislation where there is a medical, physical emergency.

6. Doctors think the 14 day review period is too long

The draft legislation allows for a maximum of 14 days to pass before a decision is made if a woman appeals against a decision not to grant a termination, but the head of the Irish Medical Organisation said that this is “too long”. Dr Matthew Sadlier said the health of patients may deteriorate significantly during the period of a fortnight.

7. They also don’t think that the numbers of people seeking abortions will be high

Dr Fionnuala McAuliffe of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said it is “rare clinical cases” where a termination is carried out because of a serious illness. She said that based on evidence from Northern Ireland, the indications are that the number of suicidal woman seeking abortions will increase, a view that was backed up by other medical professionals, who pointed out that abortions are already taking place in circumstances where the law allows it. “We expect we will see low numbers as well,” she said. Dr Coulter-Smyth said the inclusion of risk of suicide in the legislation may increase the demand for terminations, but pointed out that suicide in pregnancy is an extraordinarily rare situation.

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8. Ireland’s biggest maternity hospitals don’t have intensive care units

Dr Rhona Mahoney, Dr Sam Coulter-Smyth and Dr Peter Boylan take notes during the hearing.

Doctors from two of the country’s biggest maternity hospitals said they want to see all hospitals included in the legislation, not just the 19 currently permitted, because Dublin’s maternity hospitals do not have intensive care units – which Dr Coulter-Smyth described as “not fit for purpose” and crazy”.

9. Not all TDs are happy with the bill

Mattie McGrath criticised the draft legislation and said that some important evidence given at the initial Oireachtas hearings in January – particularly around the issue of abortion and suicidal ideation – was not used to compose the heads of the bill. Peter Mathews and Terence Flanagan both asked for specific examples of how the heads of the bill were influenced by the evidence in January.

10. Despite the huge amount of debate generated by this legislation, it will only ever affect a tiny number of people

A lot of the speakers over the course of the day were loathe to put figures on the record, but Dr Gerard Burke of the Mid-Western Regional Maternity Hospital said he believed that “this big intellectual effort is affecting a relatively small number of women”. He estimated that of the roughly 100 maternal deaths Ireland can expect over the next decade, perhaps two or three could be affected by the legislation.

11.  The issue of fatal foetal abormalities came up repeatedly

Even though it is outside the scope of the legislation (because the laws can only deal with the X case decision, not anything else), the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities came up again and again over the course of the day. Dr Coulter Smyth was one of a number of experts who spoke said it was unfortunate that it was not included in the bill. Labour TD Eamonn Maloney said that the government should really be legislating for women in that position and if “we were brave enough” it would.

12. Jerry Buttimer showed once again why he’s such a good chair

The Fine Gael TD did what few others have been able to do in the history of Oireachtas committees – he kept things (broadly) on topic and running on time, and smacked down the first signs of incivility. He also calmed things down when hecklers got particularly feisty during the morning session, briefly suspending the hearing and urging everyone to keep it civil, given the divisive nature of what was being discussed.  This might sound like basic chairing, but it’s a rare thing to see in the Oireachtas and is especially effective given it was on such a contentious topic.

As it happened: Oireachtas hearings on planned abortion laws >

Read: A crash course in today’s abortion legislation hearings >

Letter: TFMR ‘disappointed’ at exclusion from abortion hearings >

About the author:

Christine Bohan

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