Saturday 27 December 2014

Justice Dept and HSE in firing line on abortion crisis

Revealed: State agencies were warned woman was suicidal when she was 16 weeks pregnant

Maeve Sheehan 
and Philip Ryan

Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30

Hollie Leddy Flood from Drimnagh &Fiona O Neill from Dundrum  during a Choice Ireland demonstration in protest at treatment of a suicidal pregnant woman who was refused an abortion on O' Connell Street, Dublin.
Photo:  Gareth Chaney Collins
Hollie Leddy Flood from Drimnagh &Fiona O Neill from Dundrum during a Choice Ireland demonstration in protest at treatment of a suicidal pregnant woman who was refused an abortion on O' Connell Street, Dublin Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

The two State agencies charged with the care of the pregnant young asylum seeker at the centre of the latest abortion controversy were warned she was suicidal when she was 16 weeks pregnant, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Spirasi, a group that supports victims of torture, wrote to the Department of Justice, which was responsible for the young woman, and the Health Service Executive, which provided her medical care, highlighting her condition after she was referred to them for a medical and legal assessment in June.

The revelation raises troubling questions as to why the young woman had to wait a further two months before she was finally referred to a psychiatrist to be assessed for an abortion under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act legislation.

By then, she was told it was too late for an abortion and her baby was delivered in traumatic circumstances by Caesarean section.

The latest development in the controversy comes as over a thousand people attended protests by Pro-Life and Pro-Choice campaigners in Dublin city centre yesterday.

Tensions are also mounting within both Coalition parties over the abortion issue in the wake of the case.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste Joan Burton are now both demanding answers from the HSE before the deadline of the end of September. In Fine Gael, there are calls for legislation to allow for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. On the Labour Party side, there are warnings of "trouble" with divisions over how to proceed on the issue amid demands for a referendum.

Spirasi director Greg Straton told the Sunday Independent that one of its doctors wrote to the Department of Justice and the HSE highlighting serious concerns about the young woman after she examined her in June.

Mr Straton said the letters highlighted the young woman's distressed state and that she was suicidal.

"The letters do state that she had a strong will to take her own life," Mr Straton told the Sunday Independent.

He said the group "initially saw her from a legal perspective and very quickly realised there was a very pertinent health issue".

Mr Straton added: "The moment that she raised the issue, we made immediate contact with the HSE."

Spirasi is the second group known to have highlighted concerns about the young woman's mental health with the HSE. The Irish Family Planning Association, which had been counselling the woman on how to travel to the UK for an abortion, contacted the HSE in April and again in May with serious concerns about her increasing distress.

The woman, known as Ms Y, discovered she was eight weeks pregnant on arriving in Ireland to seek asylum. She said she had been raped and wanted an abortion.

It is believed she was around 16 weeks pregnant when she was referred to Spirasi. The physician who examined her found her to be suicidal and was so concerned for her welfare that she wrote to the HSE medical team at her accommodation centre, warning she was in need of "psychological care".

Mr Straton said the physician also wrote to the medical director of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), a division of the Department of Justice that processes and accommodates asylum seekers, on learning that the young woman was to be moved to an accommodation centre in another part of the country, apparently at her own request.

Mr Straton said the letter "strongly advocated" against the move, because of her distress.

He said Spirasi received no written response from the HSE or the RIA.

"I do know that we did follow up by phone," Mr Straton added.

Later that month the woman was moved to another location.

She lost contact with Spirasi until July 18 when she attended a meeting organised by the support group. She again indicated that she was suicidal and wanted an abortion.

Mr Straton said "we strongly advised her to get to a GP" and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital shortly afterwards.

He wrote to the HSE last week notifying it of Spirasi's involvement with the young woman after the story of her traumatic request for an abortion broke. He confirmed his agency has a record of 22 interactions with the young woman, the HSE and the RIA.

Exactly what interaction the woman had with the HSE and other agencies at this time is now the subject of an investigation by the HSE.

HSE communications director Paul Connors told the Sunday Independent: "The purpose of the investigation is to deal with the fact that the HSE is unclear on the interaction and types of communication that occurred between Ms Y and the HSE, and other agencies that dealt with her in relation to her condition, up to the time she presented at the designated maternity hospital."

A Department of Justice spokeswoman said: "We are prohibited from commenting on individual cases." Ms Y's was the first abortion application under the new legislation enacted last year. It has reignited debate about Ireland's controversial abortion laws while also focussing attention on the treatment of women asylum seekers and their rights to travel for an abortion.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Independent has also learned that a British charity has provided advice and financial assistance for 22 vulnerable foreign women living in Ireland who did not have visas allowing them travel to Britain for abortions.

The Abortion Support Network (ASN) gave €28,000 in financial support to a total of 118 women from Ireland and Northern Ireland who were unable to cover the cost of travelling to Britain to have an abortion last year alone.

Since 2009, more than 1,500 women, couples and families have contacted the group, of whom around 50 were rape victims, seven were asylum seekers and 25 who said they were suicidal.

Sixteen had tried to self harm or self-abort their pregnancies before contacting the group.

The harrowing cases include:

• A non-national single mother, who became pregnant as a result of rape, contacted the charity and was given information on early medical abortion pills;

• Another woman, who was unable to get a visa for England, was given financial support so she could have a termination in Belgium;

• A non-Irish couple, who had an unwanted pregnancy with fatal foetal abnormalities, were given £500 towards an abortion after they received a visa;

• A non-national mother-of-four children in an abusive relationship was given advice on accessing early medical abortion pills because she was worried she would not get a visa in time to have an abortion;

• Another non-national who contacted the network said she bought early abortion medical pills online and took them with half a bottle of vodka and Red Bull. Her pregnancy was not terminated and the network gave her £200 towards an abortion in the UK.

Sunday Independent

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