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Up to 30 abortions a year to save the lives of mothers

UP to 30 abortions are carried out in Ireland each year.

The master of Dublin's Rotunda hospital, Dr Sam Coulter-Smith, told the first day of hearings of the Oireachtas Health Committee on the contentious issue that between 20 and 30 abortions a year are carried out to save the mother's life.

His counterpart at the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, Dr Rhona Mahony, estimated the figure at between 10 and 20 a year.

It also emerged that medical experts are divided on whether allowing the threat of suicide as grounds for abortion will open the 'floodgates' to a liberal regime.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said that the threat of suicide will be included when the Government introduces legislation and regulations, but insisted that it would not lead to abortion on demand.

However, a number of Fine Gael TDs and senators have questioned whether this should be allowed and claimed that it could lead to a liberal abortion regime.

But witnesses before the committee said claims that women would manipulate psychiatrists into declaring them suicidal in order to get an abortion were "pejorative".

Dr Mahony said she was offended by such claims. But she and other medics insisted that cases where suicide may be used as a reason for abortion were extremely rare.

"As a woman, I'm offended by some of the pejorative and judgmental views that women will manipulate doctors in order to obtain termination of pregnancy on the basis of fabricated ideas of suicide ideation or intent," Dr Mahony said.

She also dismissed claims that allowing suicide threats as grounds for abortion would open the "floodgates".

"Nobody is talking about opening up the floodgates," she said. "When women are so distressed that they are willing to take their own lives, they need to be listened to, they need to be believed and they need appropriate medical care."

The committee also heard:

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• Two pregnant women have taken their own lives since 2009, but it is impossible to say if being pregnant was the factor that led to their deaths.

• Three abortions were carried out in Holles Street last year to save women's lives and six in the Rotunda Hospital.

Dr Mary McCaffrey, from Kerry General Hospital, said that she and many of her colleagues in other regional hospitals had never come across a woman using suicide as a reason for abortion, either working here or abroad.

Dr Coulter-Smith said only one woman per 500,000 in the UK committed suicide because they were pregnant. This is not the same as pregnant woman having suicidal thoughts, called "suicide ideation".

He also said some 15pc of pregnant women presenting to hospital had mental health problems.

As well as the maternity hospital masters, psychiatrists also gave evidence before the committee and Professor Patricia Casey, from University College Dublin (UCD) and the Mater Hospital, said allowing for suicide would lead to "widespread abortion".


"They may not open the floodgates immediately but there will be widespread abortion within a short period of time," Prof Casey said.

But the other psychiatrists before the committee disagreed with Prof Casey, and Dr Anthony McCarthy, from UCD and the National Maternity Hospital, said he "can't see the floodgates opening".

Dr McCarthy said medical professionals knew of instances where pregnant woman had committed suicide but coroners, under huge pressure, returned open verdicts.

He said that while suicide rates among pregnant women are low, there is still a danger that some with mental illness or in mental distress could be driven to suicide if they are unable to obtain an abortion.

Prof Veronica O'Keane, from Trinity College, also said suicidal pregnant women went to the UK for abortions.

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