John Downing: Tackling this will be tricky but after 30 years there can be no turning back
Published 09/01/2013 | 05:00
WE NOW have the clearest insight into precisely how tricky the issue of suicide will be in the forthcoming deliberations by politicians preparing to legislate for abortion in Ireland.
But we also have an equally clear signal that there can be no turning back for this Government which must legislate to end 30 years of legal uncertainty for those caring for expectant mothers whose lives are deemed at risk.
That in a nutshell was the outcome of day one of three days of hearings being held by the TDs and senators of the Health Committee at Leinster House yesterday. During the morning session three of the country's leading obstetricians made it very clear that they needed an end to the legal threat of prosecution if they intervened to terminate a pregnancy in order to save a mother's life.
In the afternoon there was less unanimity when three leading psychiatrists addressed the question of a mother's suicide threat as grounds for deeming her life was at risk and authorising an abortion. All three agreed that such suicide threats were rare and could often be dealt with by methods other than a resort to abortion – but one of them stridently warned that legislation for abortion risked opening the floodgates, especially if based on grounds of a suicide threat.
The three obstetricians – Dr Rhona Mahony, of Holles Street, in Dublin; Dr Mary McCarthy, of Kerry General Hospital; and Dr Sam Coulter-Smith, of the Rotunda, Dublin – insisted that cases requiring abortion to save a mother's life were rare, with just six at the Rotunda and three at Holles Street last year.
Dr Mahony was most eloquent and passionate about the need for legal certainty to deal with such instances. She said the 1861 legislation governing the issue was still in force and she needed to know that neither she nor her patient faced prosecution and prison in dealing with such an eventuality.
Two of the three psychiatrists took a similar view to their medical colleagues. But Patricia Casey, a consultant psychiatrist at the Mater Hospital in Dublin and a member of the Iona Institute campaigning against abortion legislation, warned against authorising abortion, especially on grounds of a mother's suicide threat which could open the floodgates to more widespread availability.
"Legislation must be based on good medicine and on fact," she insisted.
Overall clues as to what happens next were perhaps more in the politicians' questions than in the experts' answers.
The proceedings were also attended by a number of TDs and senators who were not members of the health committee but had expressed reservations about legislating for abortion and including a mother's suicide threat.
There were searching and sceptical questions from people such as FG TDs Terrence Flanagan and John O'Mahony and FF senators Jim Walsh and Labhras O Murchu.The trenchant and divisive debates within the parties at Leinster House remain far from being resolved and the presence of Sinn Fein TD Peadar Toibin was a further reminder of the divergence across all groupings.
DAY one of these three days of hearings was extremely well run with a calm and efficiency which helped provide much information. The leadership of Health Committee chairman Jerry Buttimer, the Fine Gael Cork South Central TD, has been crucial and he received good support from others such as Fianna Fail's health spokesman Billy Kelleher and Sinn Fein's Caoimhghin O Caolain.
A thorough and grown-up debate informed by experts' opinions, including a number of women experts, has been so long overdue and our national capacity to avoid a decision has been remarkable. This coming autumn will mark the 30th anniversary of the original referendum on the abortion issue and we are weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the X case in the Supreme Court which has been left in an operational legal limbo for lack of legislation over the ensuing two decades.
The long day of hearings at Leinster House within the Seanad Chamber yesterday was a positive step. But the undertones of the questions from the politicians who must decide the next moves showed just how divisive this question remains.