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Thursday 18 October 2018

Confused reports and skewed testimony: don't hold out for a balanced debate on abortion

Catherine Noone
Catherine Noone

Shona Murray

The Oireachtas committee charged with examining the issues surrounding the upcoming abortion referendum has suffered a week marred by disarray and threats of resignations.

Chairwoman Senator Catherine Noone has hit back at claims the process is a "sham" - but it faces serious challenges and confusion.

A source close to the committee added: "Of course it's not balanced, because the world has moved on, and Ireland has moved on from the days when GPs are saying that the health system is perfect as a result of the Eighth Amendment."

However, the choice of witnesses, the questioning, and the reporting of the committee have all fallen sharply under the spotlight as the public prepares to vote on the divisive issue.

The public discourse now includes discussion of a woman who had died on a flight from Britain after an abortion, after 'The Irish Times' quoted the Master of the Rotunda Hospital, Professor Fergal Malone.

Several other online media outlets followed up the story with similar headlines, even stating that the death had been "revealed" at the committee.

However, Prof Malone did not refer to a death on a flight. He was in fact referencing a tragic case from 2012 where a 32-year old mother-of-one died in a taxi after having an abortion in London.

The case was widely publicised and three medical staff were formally acquitted of the gross negligence manslaughter of Aisha Chithira, who had undergone an abortion at a Marie Stopes clinic.

Prof Malone's point was that "forcing patients to travel between two jurisdictions...will inevitably increase the risks to mothers' physical health".

He said: "We are aware of at least one of our patients from Ireland who died following a complication from a surgical termination while travelling between Ireland and a centre abroad."

Another example of confusion occurred during the witness testimony from Dr Abigail Aiken, Assistant Professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs at University of Texas.

She told the committee that she spoke to Irish women, asking them what would they do in the event that the option of travelling to Britain was not possible.

She described in detail the methods these women cited - if travel was not permissible. Such examples included: "coats hangers, starvation, high doses of vitamin C, scalding water, drinking bleach or throwing themselves downstairs or running in to traffic".

However, it was reported elsewhere that Irish women are to this day using such methods.

Ms Noone said she has "no control over how things are reported". And "all I can do is clarify" issues.

'The Irish Times' was not available for comment at the time of going to press.

Separately, the committee has also had issues with the evidence presented.

Senator Ronan Mullen and Deputy Mattie McGrath - both of whom are on the pro-life side of the debate - have raised concerns, saying the tenor of the debate during sessions is "skewed" in favour of those who support repealing.

They dismissed the testimonies of Prof Malone and Doctor Rhona Mahony, Master of Holles Street Maternity Hospital, as "spin". Dozens of experts are due to come before the committee every week until December.

Ms Noone has described this as a "distraction" from an otherwise effectual committee.

Informed, accurate and balanced debate should be the objective for this committee - whether this can or will happen remains to be seen.

Going by this week alone, not many are hopeful.

Irish Independent

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