THE Government's legislation allowing for the threat of suicide as a ground for abortion could end up giving the wrong message to the suicidal and vulnerable young men in particular, a psychiatrist has warned.
Professor Kevin Malone, a researcher and psychiatrist in St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin, said he feared that it could have the effect of giving the impression of "legitimatising suicide" and accelerating the rate at which young men are taking their lives.
"Contrary to the notion of saving lives in an extremely small number of females, it may be placing a greater number of young male lives at risk than currently," he said.
Prof Malone was appearing before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children which heard the views of medics over two days on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill which allows for abortion in limited circumstances.
Although major divisions remain among psychiatrists, in particular on whether suicide should be included as a ground for abortion, the majority of medical witnesses saw a need for the legislation, with several calling for key changes to reduce difficulties faced by women seeking abortion.
Dr Eamon Moloney, a psychiatrist in Cork University Hospital, said a suicidal pregnant woman, who is seeking an abortion, should be assessed within 72 hours, not seven days as envisaged in the proposed legislation. He was among a number of doctors who called for earlier access to assessment for pregnant women threatening suicide.
He also said the medical opinion of a GP and a psychiatrist should be enough to determine if a woman is eligible for an abortion, rather than an examination by two psychiatrists and an obstetrician.
The strongest opposition to the legislation came from Dr Sean O Domhnaill, a HSE psychiatrist and director of the Life Institute, who told the committee that it was a "medieval solution to crisis pregnancies".
However, earlier, Dr Anthony McCarthy, a perinatal psychiatrist in the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, and president of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, said: "This bill is about saving women's lives. Suicide in pregnancy is real, a real risk, it does happen.
"This is always a tragedy, at least two lives are lost, and many others are hugely affected. We must do everything we can to prevent such deaths."
Referring to arguments that there is no evidence of abortion preventing suicide, he added: "I believe that there will never be statistical evidence to prove this point one way or the other. Trying to prove anything statistically for such a rare event is extremely difficult if not impossible.
"Abortion is never a treatment for suicide, but nor is counselling or psychotherapy or antidepressants or anything else." Anyone who says there will never be a woman in this predicament "does not understand the mess and the horrible nature of life sometimes, he added.
Dr John Sheehan, a perinatal psychiatrist in the Rotunda Hospital, took a more cautious approach than his perinatal colleagues and warned that women should not make irrevocable decisions in such a crisis state. The risk of a woman dying by suicide in pregnancy is between 1 in 250,000 to 500,000 live births, he added.
"In practice, it is impossible for any psychiatrist to accurately predict which women will die by suicide in pregnancy," he said. Being unable to predict who will die by suicide is likely to lead to multiple false positives.
Dr Maeve Doyle, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, said girls who are in the care of the HSE who become pregnant and seek an abortion are likely to be most affected by the legislation.
Unlike those not in care, they cannot travel freely to the UK. The legislation must take account of this group, she said.