The recent Oireachtas health hearings on abortion, held in January 2013, shed a lot of light on the question of whether abortion is needed to protect women’s health in Ireland.
As a member of the leading Government party that has committed itself to addressing in some way the abortion question – whether by legislation or otherwise, I believe that we have a duty and a responsibility to inform ourselves fully on all of the facts surrounding care for pregnant women in Ireland.
The death of Savita Halappanavar here in Galway demonstrated only too well how things can sometimes go wrong during pregnancy. We were all touched by the tragic and untimely loss of Savita and her baby and offer our condolences to her husband and family.
But the question we have to ask ourselves as legislators is whether the tragedy would have been averted if our law on abortion was any different?
The report on what happened in UCHG is due to be given to Praveen Halappanaver this week and cannot be pre-empted by speculation on our part.
However the facts and the evidence offered at the recent Oireachtas Health Committee confirm what the current position is in Ireland on the care of women in pregnancy – a matter that is rightly a priority for all of us.
Ireland’s safety record for pregnant women
The United Nations presents regular comparative worldwide data on the number of women who die during pregnancy and childbirth. The data is presented on a three yearly basis and Ireland has consistently ranked in the top five out of 161 countries for safety for mothers during pregnancy. These figures say a lot about the high standard of obstetric care during pregnancy in Ireland.
At the recent hearings, obstetricians of every ideology corroborated those figures by agreeing on one significant fact – that to their knowledge no woman has died in Ireland as a result of having been denied treatment during pregnancy. Women receive whatever treatment they need to safeguard their lives during pregnancy - even where that treatment indirectly results in the death of her unborn child. That is and should be a comfort to women accessing our maternity services.
Abortion as a treatment for suicidal intent
A topic addressed at length at the recent Oireachtas hearings was the suitability of abortion as a treatment for women expressing suicidal intent during pregnancy. Clearly this is a key issue for legislators given that any proposed legislation based on the X case judgment (1992 ) would mean access to abortion on the grounds of threatened suicide.
The evidence submitted by the psychiatrists in this regard was stunning.
Expert after expert confirmed that abortion is not an appropriate treatment for a woman or girl expressing suicidal feelings during pregnancy. And the difficulty in diagnosing suicidal intent was highlighted.
In a written submission from St Patrick’s Hospital, it was stated “Mental health professionals are not able to predict suicide and there is no test or clinical assessment which is either valid or reliable in this area”. Referring to abortion as a treatment for a woman expressing suicidal feelings, Dr Anthony McCarthy, one of Ireland’s three peri-natal psychiatrists said “None of us has seen a woman where the only treatment that would have prevented suicide was a termination of pregnancy, emphasising the rarity of this." Another colleague Professor Kevin Malone of UCD said legislating for abortion on the grounds of suicidality would potentially exacerbate, not lessen, the risk of suicide in women.
So the experts – the people with the clinical experience- are cautioning against including suicide as a grounds for abortion.
And a body of peer-reviewed research has found that not only does abortion hold no benefit for women but that some women suffer adverse mental health consequences after abortion. I have met with people who have outlined to me the negative impact their abortion has had on their lives. One woman described to me the 'ocean of suffering' she found herself in for years after her abortion. It was the human side to the story that we often don't hear - and we need to take the time to hear these women's perspectives.
Learning from other countries
As legislators, it is absolutely key that we look abroad and learn from the experiences in other countries where abortion has been legalised for some time. The late Professor Anthony Clare confirmed that when abortion was introduced in Bermuda when he worked there as a young doctor, the “threat of suicide” ground for abortion was widely exploited, placing psychiatrists in an impossible position.
In California, the Act which allowed abortion on the grounds that “the woman is dangerous to herself” resulted in 61,572 terminations just three years later.
In Britain, one of the largest abortion providers, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, recently admitted “ it is not the case that the majority of women seeking abortion are necessarily at risk of damaging their mental health if they continue their pregnancy. But it is significant that, because of the law, women and their doctors have to indicate that this is the case.” Simply put, they know the law is flouted.
As responsible members of Government we must look at all of the evidence before us and debate this matter maturely and reasonably. We have now heard from the experts. It would be wrong for legislators to proceed down one route when the best interests of the patient - both mother and baby - and the evidence indicates otherwise.
It is now time for us to calmly and responsibly consider the best way forward. That is how we will best serve Irish women and their unborn children and ultimately Irish society.