Psychiatrists have no way of accurately predicting whether a distressed pregnant woman will kill herself, a leading expert has warned.
John Sheehan, a perinatal psychiatrist at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, suggested changes to Ireland's strict abortion laws could therefore lead to unnecessary terminations.
"In practice, it would be impossible for any psychiatrist to accurately predict which woman will die by suicide in pregnancy," said Dr Sheehan. "Being unable to predict who will die by suicide is likely to lead to multiple 'false positives'. As psychiatrists, we are trained to assess and treat, not to predict the future."
Dr Sheehan was among a string of psychiatrists to give evidence on the proposed legislation which, if enacted, will legalise abortion if there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the threat of suicide.
As the second day of public hearings on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013 got under way, Dr Sheehan warned the legislation would have "major implications" for psychiatrists.
A panel of two psychiatrists and an obstetrician/gynaecologist will be required to determine whether a pregnant woman with suicidal ideation is at real risk of killing herself to find grounds for an abortion under the proposed changes to the law.
The bill aims to legislate for the 1992 X case judgment from Ireland's Supreme Court , which found abortion is legal if there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the threat of suicide. The case was taken by a 14-year-old rape victim who became pregnant and was refused permission to travel for an abortion.
The loosening of the rules is also intended to meet requirements from a European court decision that found a woman in remission from cancer should not have been forced to travel oversees for a termination.
Meanwhile, the president of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland has dismissed suggestions that psychiatrists could be manipulated by pregnant women using suicide as an excuse to get an abortion. Anthony McCarthy said psychiatrists are "not naive" and that they see all sorts of cases on a regular basis, such as drug addicts threatening to kill themselves if they are not given methadone.
"If some woman comes to me and she's refused all other alternatives, then my question will be why, and why is she sitting in front of me," said Dr McCarthy, who is also a specialist in perinatal psychiatry at the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street, Dublin. "If her only option is termination of pregnancy, why hasn't she gone to England? We're not fools. That's going to be a very complex discussion."