It is with some trepidation that politicians read the Grassroots column in the Galway Advertiser. Having escaped its wrath for the past six years, there was a sense of inevitability when my own political travails finally came into the firing line of the column here last week.
However, I would like to address a number of inaccuracies that informed the substance of the article.
I stated last year that six successive Governments had failed to address the lack of clarity in relation to the Supreme Court ruling in the X case, and that the incumbent administration had made it clear it would not become the seventh.
I specified, however, that the Government should provide this clarity by legislating in respect of elements of the judgement that pertained to the threat to the life of the mother for reasons of physical illness; while referring the threat of suicide to the people by way of referendum.
This remains my position, and it is because of the Government’s decision to include the so-called “suicide clause” in the proposed legislation without a referendum that I have opposed the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.
Earlier this year, psychiatrists appearing before the Oireachtas Health Committee affirmed that the premise that abortion was an appropriate course of action in the treatment of a patient with suicidal ideation had no basis in medical evidence.
In fact, they stated that research in this area had identified a much higher risk of mental health conditions such as depression, psychosis, and suicidality in women who had had abortions.
The legislation therefore proposes to provide a woman in distress with a procedure that doctors claim will actually worsen their condition, and result in the termination of an unborn human life.
It has correctly been argued that we already had referenda on this issue. However, much of the aforementioned medical evidence has emerged only in the years since the X case in 1992 and, more particularly, since the last referendum in 2002.
Changes in psychiatrist position
This is reflected in changes to the position of the British Royal College of Psychiatrists in relation to abortion. Twenty years ago it downplayed the risks to a woman’s health associated with abortion. However, in light of research conducted in the intervening period, it undertook a review of its guidelines in 2008 and altered its position to issue a warning that identified a range of mental disorders linked to abortion.
I believe legislators have a responsibility to take cognisance of contemporary medical evidence in framing legislation that will have such major implications for the health of women and children.
Medical knowledge and best practice evolves. If we were to frame legislation concerning the health of women in pregnancy based on the best advice from 30 years ago, we could be looking at providing for symphysiotomy in the legislation.
If we were to frame legislation concerning the health of women in pregnancy based on the best advice from 60 years ago, we could be looking at providing for the administration of thalidomide in the legislation.
It is important, therefore, that we frame this legislation with regard to the best medical advice available to us in 2013 rather than ignoring best advice and basing the Bill solely on a decision of the courts from 21 years ago.
It is in light of these advances in medical knowledge, too, that I contend a new referendum is required: so the people can decide on the appropriateness of the inclusion of suicidal intent in the legislation, guided by information that was unavailable to them in 1992 or 2002.
This has long been my position in relation to this issue and suggestions in last week’s Grassroots that I outlined it publicly only in response to other politicians doing so is not only cynical but also misinformed.
The record will show I was the first Government TD or senator in Galway – and nationally – to state publicly that I would be opposing the proposed legislation last April.
In fact, as long as a year ago I communicated to the Fine Gael leadership that I would not support any legislation in this area that included suicidality as a ground for abortion in the absence of a referendum.
Finally, the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar last year has been repeatedly cited as an example of why we need this legislation, and has wrongfully been used to further one side of this divisive debate.
It should be made clear: this legislation does not change the law insofar as it applied to Savita’s case.
The inquest into her death and the subsequent clinical review affirmed that a failure to recognise the increasing risk to her life prevented hospital staff from taking appropriate action in time.
Had the gravity of the threat to her life been adequately recognised in time, the existing law would have permitted a termination of her pregnancy to be carried out – as occurs an average of 30 times each year in Irish hospitals.
There is much in the law that I welcome. Specifically, I welcome the clarity that this Bill offers to medical professionals by underpinning these existing principles in legislation. I welcome also the reassurance that this offers women: that every necessary treatment can be provided to protect the life of the mother, where it is subject to risk.
However, it is the risks posed to the health of the mother by part of this legislation, rather than the risks which it purports to avert, that causes much of the concern in relation to its provisions