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Saturday 25 January 2020

Reilly: Abortion law changes are for 'clarification'

Minister for Health James O'Reilly
Minister for Health James O'Reilly

yndsey Telford

Health Minister James Reilly has insisted changes to Ireland's strict abortion regime are aimed at clarifying existing laws.

As the first day of public hearings into the draft legislation got under way, the minister said he wanted to ensure there was no ambiguity about what it means.

"The only purpose of the legislation I will be bringing before the Houses of the Oireachtas is to clarify what is lawfully available by way of treatment in cases where there is a real and substantial threat to the life of a pregnant woman and to set out clearly to find in specific circumstances in which this treatment can be lawfully provided," Dr Reilly said.

Today is the first of three days of hearings on the legislation, the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013, which, if enacted, will legalise abortion where there is a substantial risk to the mother's life, including the threat of suicide

Hearings at the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children are also planned for Monday and Tuesday.

Each hearing is expected to last around ten hours.

The masters of two major maternity hospitals, Rhona Mahony, from the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street and Sam Coulter Smith, of the Rotunda Hospital, will give evidence later today before.

The bill will legislate for the 1992 X case judgment from Ireland's Supreme Court which found abortion is legal if there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including emergency medical cases, non-emergency medical cases and the threat of suicide.

The case was taken by a 14-year-old rape victim who became pregnant and was refused permission to travel for an abortion.

As well as that judgment, the law is intended to meet requirements from a European court decision that found a woman in remission from cancer should not have been forced to travel overseas for an abortion.

The Government committed to reforming the ban on abortion by July following the death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital last year after being denied a termination during miscarriage.

Dr Reilly said more than 50 drafts of the legislation were composed as the Government worked to produce "balanced proposals that meet our obligations".

The minister, who detailed the individual heads of the Bill, made his opening remarks at the start of the hearing before leaving without taking questions.

Members of the cross-party committee criticised Dr Reilly for not staying.

A Government spokesman has stressed that the key first element in the hearings is to give members clarity on the precise meaning of the heads of the Bill.

He said that Ambrose McLoughlin, secretary general at the Department of Health, and chief medical officer Tony Holohan were "well placed" to answer questions.

The aim is for some witnesses to give factual answers before the committee hears any political debate on policy, he said.

A major debate around the legislative reform has been whether abortion should be offererd to a suicidal woman.

Chief medical officer Tony Holohan told the hearing that diagnosing suicide among pregnant women was a clinical science and not "hocus pocus".

He dismissed suggestions there could be a lack of certainty in the diagnosis, which Dr Reilly had previously claimed was "subjective".

"It is based on scientific method. It is not a hocus pocus sort of assessment. There is a genuine clinical method," Mr Holohan said.

The chief medical officer said he recognised there had been conflicting opinion from psychiatrists as to whether abortion could be provided as a solution to suicide.

But he added that the Supreme Court had made its ruling and it must be adhered to.

Experts in psychiatry will give evidence to the hearing on Monday, when the issue of suicidality will be fully explored.

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