Thursday 22 February 2018

Eilish O'Regan: Uncomfortable truths at heart of abortion vote

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Damien Eagers
Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Damien Eagers
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

One of the many tests of how we will vote in the referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment will be how we analyse and come to terms with uncomfortable truths.

It's a challenge for both sides of the argument as well as the wavering, undecided voters who could sway the eventual result.

The figures from the Department of Health in the UK confirm that a significant number of women from the Republic of Ireland are travelling to Britain every year to have an abortion after getting a diagnosis telling them their baby will have Down Syndrome.

There have also been abortions for spina bifida and cystic fibrosis.

All women were over 24 weeks pregnant and had received a full diagnosis.

The bare figures tell us little more than the condition diagnosed in the unborn baby.

There is no information on each woman's age or how many children she already had. We know nothing of each woman's personal, home or marital circumstances.

We know nothing of their hearts and minds.

The 141 women who were granted abortions after 24 weeks under Ground E - that their baby would be born with a severe disability - would have had to appear before two doctors.

Among them are parents who were told their baby had a fatal foetal abnormality such as Edward's Syndrome and would not live for long outside the womb.

Health Minister Simon Harris, who is walking a tightrope in the run-up to the referendum, may have been ill advised to be so categorical that women in Ireland would not abort a baby with Down Syndrome.

His attempt to close down the debate on disability is understandable.

Disability will not be specific grounds for abortion under the new proposals. It will only be allowed in cases of fatal foetal abnormality which would lead to a baby dying before or after being born.

However, the issue of aborting Down Syndrome babies will not go away. It will continue to loom as the merits of unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks are debated.

Obstetricians insist only a screening test is available to women, giving them the odds of having a Down Syndrome baby, in that time. The test is not definitive and a diagnosis is not available at that stage.

However, the same odds can be interpreted in different ways by women, depending on their circumstances. It is one of the inconvenient truths we must acknowledge as we reflect on our vote.

Irish Independent

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