Abortion about saving lives - National Maternity Hospital master
The master of the National Maternity Hospital has insisted that doctors under her charge will not hesitate to terminate a pregnancy if it will save a woman's life.
As the Government assesses how to legalise abortion in limited circumstances, Dr Rhona Mahony, from the Holles Street hospital in Dublin, said the procedure is about saving lives, not ending lives.
"If a woman is critically ill and it's very obvious she is likely to die and she will be saved by intervening and treating her, and that treatment involves interrupting or terminating a pregnancy, we will not hesitate to do so," Dr Mahony said.
Three days of hearings on plans to legislate for abortion began with evidence from the maternity master who said it is vital that doctors are legally protected to carry out terminations because existing laws are outdated and criminalise them for doing so.
Dr Mahony said: "It's not about terminating pregnancies by destroying babies. It's about saving women's lives."
Three abortions were carried out at Holles Street last year to save women's lives.
Six were performed at Rotunda Hospital in central Dublin, TDs and senators were told during the first day of special Oireachtas health committee hearings on abortion reform.
They began a day after Pope Benedict weighed into the abortion debate when he expressed dismay at the proposed introduction of abortion legislation "in various countries, even those of Christian tradition".
Ireland's Catholic bishops will make their views known to the committee on Thursday.
The meetings will allow politicians to gather information to help draft proposed laws on terminations on medical grounds.
The Government last month announced plans to introduce a combination of legislation and regulation to legalise abortion in limited circumstances including when a pregnant woman is a suicide risk.
Dr Mahony shot down claims that legalising abortion in such cases would lead to termination on demand.
She said she was offended by suggestions that a woman would pretend to be suicidal to convince doctors to carry out the procedure.
"As a woman, I'm offended by some of the pejorative and judgmental views that women will manipulate doctors in order to obtain termination of pregnancy on the basis of fabricated ideas of suicide ideation or intent," Dr Mahony said.
"When women are so distressed that they are willing to take their own lives, they need to be listened to, they need to be believed and they need appropriate medical care."
Between 10 and 20 life-saving abortions are carried out annually in Irish hospitals, Dr Mahony estimated.
Dr Sam Coulter-Smith, master of the Rotunda, said he believes the figure to be between 20 and 30.
According to UK figures, only one in 500,000 pregnant women with poor mental health would take their own life, Dr Coulter-Smith said.
Earlier, Irish Medical Council president Kieran Murphy said the organisation has received no complaints from women after having a termination performed on medical grounds.
The council was the first body to appear before the committee, when Mr Murphy said that doctors are prohibited from allowing their moral views on abortion to influence treatment of a pregnant woman.
The council's guidelines demand that doctors exercising "conscientious objection" explain their position and refer the patient to another doctor.
"Conscientious objection does not absolve you from your responsibilities to a patient in an emergency situation," Mr Murphy said.
More than 40 witnesses and 20 groups will give evidence over three days of hearings.
Other bodies to attend the meetings include the Irish Family Planning Association, the Bar Council of Ireland, Irish Council of Civil Liberties and campaigners from both the pro-life and pro-choice camps.
The Government revealed plans to reform the limited ban on abortion last month, which will only allow a pregnancy to be terminated if there is a real and substantial risk to a woman's life.
Legislation will be drafted in accordance with the 20-year-old Supreme Court ruling on the X case.
The decision to reform legislation arose from recommendations in an expert group report in November. The report was compiled to set out options on how to respond to a European Court of Human Rights ruling on the so-called ABC case, which found that the state violated the rights of a woman in remission from cancer who was forced to travel abroad to terminate her pregnancy.
Its publication also coincided with the tragic death of pregnant Savita Halappanavar who miscarried 17 weeks into her pregnancy. The 31-year-old died at Galway University Hospital on October 28 after contracting septicaemia.
Her husband Praveen Halappanavar claimed she was denied an abortion.