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Lise Hand: Can we all take deep breath, please?

When it comes to the hair-trigger issue of abortion, it's a thin, precarious line between reasoned debate and emotional mayhem.

All it can take is one inflammatory, injudicious word, phrase or claim, and discussions are instantly derailed, knocked off-course by political and/or religious red herrings.

And so the committee hearings on the heads of the abortion legislation bill tiptoed into action in the Seanad chamber yesterday.

The rules of engagement were clear – this wasn't to be a free-ranging free-for-all.

Yesterday's session was focused upon the medical and technical definitions contained in the draft legislation, with a raft of medical personnel lined up to offer explanations within the strict parameters placed on the committee.

But the trouble is that it's well-nigh impossible to throw up black-and-white boundaries around an issue which is a nebulous, confusing welter of grey.

The huge difficulties in grappling with the abortion conundrum were almost immediately underlined by the Health Minister when he opened the morning session by revealing that more than 50 drafts were composed before the heads of the bill were finally released.

There was much discontent when James Reilly left the chamber after he had finished speaking, even though the Oireachtas members had been informed by email the previous day that the minister wouldn't be taking questions.

"Bizarre," charged Senator Paul Bradford.

"A farce," pronounced Mattie McGrath.

The official explanation was that this session was about technical and medical considerations, with the short fuse of political ideologies being left unlit (for now).

Unsurprisingly it was the proposed inclusion of a suicide clause in the legislation that took centre stage for most of the day.

The state's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, pointedly dismissed the notion that the methods used to assess a pregnant woman who declared herself to be suicidal were "hocus pocus".

He said: "It is a clinical science, psychiatry, and it is a science."

The questions from the TDs and senators to the panels of doctors and consultants were varied. There were questions on omissions and inclusions in the heads of bill, such as excluding fatal foetal abnormalities or inserting a proposal that a woman who undergoes a termination will potentially face 14 years' imprisonment. There was also talk of the danger of "floodgates" opening via this abortion legislation.

The atmosphere grew a little fraught. A bit of shouting rose from a few of the members who were dissatisfied with the answers from the medics and committee chairman Jerry Buttimer ordered all parties to simmer down.

"Can we all take a deep breath, please?" he suggested.

BY early afternoon, the chamber was almost full for the contributions by Master of Holles Street Hospital Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of the Rotunda Dr Sam Coulter-Smyth, and former Master of Holles Street Dr Peter Boylan.

Although the trio broadly sang from the same hymn-sheet, they too wandered into the grey mist when it came to the suicide clause.

"Psychiatric colleagues tell us that there is currently no available evidence to show that termination of pregnancy is treatment for suicidal ideation or intent, and as obstetricians we are required to provide and practise evidence-based treatment," said Dr Coulter-Smyth.

But his colleague Dr Mahony had a different view.

"One could be forgiven for thinking that this bill is about the risk of suicide in pregnancy. It's not. This bill is about saving women's lives regardless of whether that risk to life is physical or mental. It's about saving her life," she stressed.

Peter Boylan was dismissive of the notion that a pregnant woman could dupe a psychiatrist into granting a termination. Our head doctors are "no fool", he said.

"It's not a question of a psychiatrist rocking up and saying 'terminate this pregnancy'."

It was a long, gruelling afternoon. But then Buttimer made an announcement.

"It's all about new life, and I've just heard that deputy Damien English has become the father of twin girls," he announced.

"Ahh," went the room, as applause broke out. Everyone understands babies. It's the foetuses that nobody can figure out.

Irish Independent