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Sunday 19 November 2017

GP resigned from expert group over 'direction'

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Doctor felt abortion panel failed to address specific terms of reference

SERIOUS divisions within the Government's expert group on abortion led to the resignation of one of its key members.

Ailis ni Riain, a respected GP and an expert on crisis pregnancy, alleged that the group was not addressing a requirement in its terms of reference to "present a series of options" to Health Minister James Reilly.

In a group email announcing her resignation last May, Dr ni Riain said she had "expressed reservations about the direction of the deliberations" of the expert group.

"I continue to have great concern that the expert group is not addressing its specific terms of reference. In view of this concern, I feel compelled to resign from the expert group," she wrote.

Analysis pages 20 & 21

Elaborating in her formal letter of resignation to Dr Reilly, she wrote that having attended "five of the six planned meetings", she did not believe the group was addressing its specific terms of reference, namely that it should "present a series of options for your consideration".

"I have attempted to discuss this matter on numerous occasions within the group but do not feel that the matter has been given appropriate consideration or that my concerns have been met."

Dr ni Riain's claims have been rejected by the expert group. However, the reasons she cited for her departure will feed claims by anti-abortion campaigners that the expert group's focus was too narrow and presented the Government with a limited range of options.

The 14-strong expert group, chaired by Mr Justice Sean Ryan, was tasked with outlining the Government's options on how to respond to a European Court of Human Rights ruling. That ruling found that the rights of a pregnant woman in remission from cancer were violated because she had to travel abroad for an abortion.

After delays and allegations of discord, the group reported in November, recommending a combination of legislation and regulations which were debated at a three-day hearing before an Oireachtas committee last week.

During last week's hearings, a prominent pro-life campaigner, Professor William Binchy, accused Dr Reilly of influencing the expert group to "narrow" its scope and provide a limited range of options.

The Catholic hierarchy has also criticised the scope of the expert group on abortion. Bishop Leo O'Reilly has claimed that the group's terms of reference gave them "wide scope", it had not looked at all the options available, including those suggested by the judgement of the European Court.

Although Dr Ni Riain had resigned last May, her departure did not emerge until the group reported to Dr Reilly. Even then, the reasons for her resignation were not disclosed.

In her letter to Dr Reilly, Dr ni Riain said she did not reach her decision lightly: "I believe that the issues that should be addressed are of the utmost importance to society and accordingly, must be dealt with in an appropriate manner and with adherence to the terms of references as laid out by the Oireachtas."

A letter on behalf of the expert group said its members "respectfully disagree" with her suggestion that they were acting outside their terms of reference.

One member, Dr Peter Boylan, a former Master of Holles Street Maternity Hospital, protested in a strongly worded letter to the chairman, Mr Justice Ryan.

He said Dr ni Riain's allegations were "unfounded" and "impugn my reputation, as well as that of the other members".

"I have kept contemporaneous notes of the meetings and I categorically reject the allegation that the group has not been addressing the terms of reference. My notes do not support her contention in any way. Supportive evidence is contained in the various sequential draft documents that have been produced. These documents indicate the range of discussion and have provided ample opportunity for input."

He wrote: "All members have plenty of opportunity to express their opinions and so I am puzzled by Dr ni Riain's statement that she has attempted to raise her concerns on several occasions but implied that she had been rebuffed. That is incorrect."

Attempts to contact Dr ni Riain last week were unsuccessful.

She has served as women's health director and director of advocacy and professional competence at the Irish College of General Practitioners. She has conducted research on crisis pregnancies and post-abortion counselling.

Sunday Independent

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