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In the early hours of last Thursday week, the long awaited Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 was published, even though the contents of much of it were well known throughout the day and days leading up to the draft bill appearing on the Department of Healths website. The three main criteria in the bill in which it is legally permissable carry out a ‘medical procedure’ are, as outlined in section 7, Risk of loss of life from physical illness, section 8, Risk of loss of life from physical illness in emergency and section 9, Risk of loss of life from suicide. Many of the arguments in recent months have centred around the Savita Halappanavar case, a tragedy which saw a young expectant mother lose her life and that of her unborn child when she was refused a ‘medical procedure’. Reports today, show that amazingly she was the only woman registered by Central Statistic Office figures that was recorded as dying of a maternal death, although it has been widely reported that two women died in the Coombe Hospital in Dublin and a further three died in Cork University Hospital, which the hospitals reported as maternal deaths. This seems to indicatate that official statistics aren’t fully recording these tragedies. The CSO relies solely on information contained in death certificates and does not defer to maternity units to compile their data, furthermore Maternal Death Enquiry (MDE) Ireland says the true maternal death rate is eight per 100,000 births. If we bear these figures in mind, the first two criteria contained in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, are essential in protecting the mother and her child, and in any rational society it would be expected and presumed that ‘medical procedures’ would be carried out in order to prevent the loss of life from physical illness and in an emergency situation.
A poll conducted by IPSOs/MRBI and published in today’s Irish Times asked a representative sample of the population, ‘if they were for or against the heads of the Bill to legislate for the Supreme Court X judgment of 1992 permitting abortion where a mother’s life is in danger, 75 per cent said Yes, 14 per cent said No and 11 per cent had no opinion. Furthermore, 89 per cent said it should be allowed where a woman’s life is at risk and 78 per cent were in favour in cases where a woman’s health is at risk. This current bill in reality all stems for a need to legislate for the ‘X case’ of 1992, where in the supreme court, on appeal, the court allowed for the threat of suicide as a grounds for abortion. In that particular case however, there were serious extenuating circumstances, namely that this was a fourteen year old girl who had become pregnant after enduring two years of sexual abuse by a man, that the court judgements subsequently called, an ‘evil and depraved’ man’. So for all we have been told by our Government that they are legislating for the Supreme Court X case, is this really the true reflection of the situation. ‘X’ is undeniably not just a case of suicidal ideation as the Government would have us believe, but also a case that is intrinsically associated with rape and serial sexual abuse.
When the IPSO/MRBI poll statistics are examined, they make for interesting reading, when respondents were asked if abortion should be allowed where a woman is threatening suicide 52 per cent said Yes, 29 per cent said No and 19 per cent had no opinion, this is a far lesser percentage than the headline figure that asked in the context of the Supreme Court X judgement if abortion should be permitted if a mothers life is in danger. Interestingly and quite reasonably, the poll found that 81 per cent said abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or abuse. This surely is the crux of the issue, a significant majority of the public believe abortion should be permissible in the case of incest or rape, and very few seem to dispute medical intervention when there is a Risk of loss of life from physical illness or in an emergency situation. However welcome and overdue this proposed change is, much of the current controversy centres around the third criteria, the carrying out of a ‘medical procedure’ when there is a, ‘Risk of loss of life from suicide’, the exact passage from the bill pertaining to this provision is detailed in full at the end of this article. This is the area I am going to focus in on, as it is the section of the draft bill that will be most hotly debated and discussed in the coming weeks. This bill will not provide for abortion in the case of incest or rape, but will in the case of a risk of a loss of life from suicide. I personally believe most people would be more inclined to support abortion legislation that provided for a termination in the case of incest or rape.
When the figures are stacked up it is quite obvious the concerns that the Government now have over the third provision that makes a ‘medical procedure’ lawful under the act in the context of a risk of loss of life from suicide. If this wording and provision was put to the people in a referendum, the Government may find itself not able to pass the rest of the legislation due to this provision in the act, if the current concerns over legislating for the suicide provision intensified and gained traction amongst the public. Today’s poll found that when asked if abortion should be allowed where a woman is threatening suicide, 52 per cent said Yes, 29 per cent said No and 19 per cent had no opinion, surely this is the provision that is making many of the Government TD’s nervous about voting in favour of the bill.
Fine Gael TD Peter Matthews has previously voiced his concerns and reiterated them again on Vincent Browne last night, it appears that he and maybe up to five or six, if not more, of his Oireachtas colleagues may go against the staunchly enforced party whip and thus face expulsion from the parliamentary party. Minister of State for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton stated on her own website last April, ‘I do have concerns about the proposal to legislate to for suicide as a ground for abortion. Legislating for suicidality worries me, because as 113 consultant psychiatrists said clearly today, such a step has “no basis in medical evidence”. Surely we should legislate on the basis of medical facts, and be guided by the experts who know their patients and their conditions better than anyone else.’ The statement of the 113 consultant psychiatrists reads: “As practising Psychiatrists we are deeply concerned at the Government’s stated plan to legislate along the lines of the X-Case, as this will mean legislating for suicidality. We believe that legislation that includes a proposal that an abortion should form part of the treatment for suicidal ideation has no basis in the medical evidence available.” However, other medical practitioners are welcoming the provisions in the draft bill and last night Doctors for Choice issued a short press statement endorsing the abortion proposals, Dr. Mark Murphy said that ‘Doctors for Choice welcome the majority support for abortion in the IPSOS/MRBI poll in today’s Irish Times. We strongly believe that abortion should be decriminalised and solely considered a health matter between a woman and her doctor. We urgently need to repeal the 8th amendment’
The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has stated he is to strictly enforce the three line party whip on his deputies to vote in favour of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, even though he previously stated he would not legislate for the X case ahead of the 2007 General Election and a spokesperson for Mr. Kenny told The Irish Catholic newspaper at that time, ‘“Mr Kenny has given a commitment that no party he presides over will legislate for abortion,” his coalition partners Labour however have been far more consistent in their view on this issue, with every Labour party manifesto since the X case judgement in 1992, affirming their parties support of legalising abortion in line with X. In the Taoiseachs response to criticism of the Governments Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in the Dail yesterday, he stated that his position as Taoiseach, “is not confined to any sector of the people, it is for all the people. Therefore I am proud to stand here as a public representative, who happens to be a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach. I am a Taoiseach for all the people and that’s my job.”
The Taoiseach was responding to criticisms of the bill by Independent TD, Mattie McGrath, who called for a free vote for his Fine Gael deputies on this matter and asked the Taoiseach, “Do you understand Taoiseach why a growing number of people simply do not believe your repeated claim that this Bill is pro-life? Nothing could be further from the truth.” Independent Senator Ronan Mullen, warned of a ‘sad new chapter’ in Irish life should the bill be forced through the Houses of the Oireachtas, questioned the spin surrounding the title of the bill and how he believed the provision for risk of loss of life from suicide could be exploited and open up the floodgates to abortion on demand. Declan Ganley, who held a public meeting in Dublin last night, also rowed in on the debate claiming that the draft bill would “legalise the taking of innocent human life”, and he was also critical of the party whip system in the Oireachtas that denies deputies the right to conscientious objection on ethical and moral issues, Mr. Ganley stated that, “An alternative for Ireland must respect the conscience of every citizen and legislator . . . It cannot adopt the politics of telling people how to vote on an issue as deeply personal as abortion.”
The issue is conscientious objection is a very interesting issue in all of this debate, Irish politics and political parties self enforce a strict three line party whip that takes no prisoners, go against the parties policy stance and you will be expelled from the parliamentary party. In recent weeks Irish political commentators and journalists have argued that the whip system cannot be changed, as it would make the business of politics, governance and the passing of legislation in the Oireachtas impossible. This is simply not true, in Britain, the same system exists as it does in Ireland, however they implement the single and two line whip as well as the three line whip, whereas we do not, even though there is a provision for it for political parties in the Houses of the Oireachtas, it is not enforced. The three line whip logically should be applied to votes on finance bills, key issues and matters of national interest, however when it comes to matters of conscientious objection a free vote should be permitted under the provision of the single line whip (A single-line whip is a guide to what the party’s policy would indicate, and notification of when the vote is expected to take place; this is non-binding for attendance or voting). Recently in Britain over one hundred Tory MP’s voted against their leader David Cameron during a debate on Gay Marriage and last year ninety one Conservatives opposed their Prime Minister on a vote to reform the House of Lords, none of the dissenters were expelled from the parliamentary party over their conscientious objection to these proposals. The Taoiseach has the power to let his own deputy’s vote in this manner if he decides to do so, and those like Peter Matthews are entitled to lobby him for the right to vote according to their conscience.
Taking all of this into account, there is one more finding from the IPSO’s/MRBI poll that I have not spoken about yet and this is the question that asked respondents ‘if abortion should be permitted where a woman deems it to be in her best interest, 46 per cent said it should not, 39 per cent said it should and 15 per cent had no opinion. This figure appears to show that there is little appetite at present for abortion on demand in this country and that there are genuine reservations at further liberalisation of abortion beyond the criteria of a threat to the life of a woman. The reason why so many people are concerned about the suicide provision contained in the bill, is because there are real concerns as to how it will be adjudicated on by medical practitioners. Throughout this article, I have avoided using the term ‘abortion’ or ‘termination’ and there is a simple reason for this, in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, nowhere in the documents eighteen pages are either of those terms used, however the term, ‘medical procedure’ features thirty three times, in simplist terms it is spin of the highest order, everyone agrees with the protection of life during pregnancy don’t they, well who wouldn’t? Any right thinking member of the society would also agree that when necessary ‘medical procedures’ should be carried out, in the context of this bill this means in common parlance, abortion and/or termination.
I have known many women, men and to a certain degree, children, affected by abortion, it is in many ways a traumatic and hugely difficult time in someones life, and it is a particularly difficult period for pregnant women, their partners and their families. Many commentators have spoken of how it is a womens right to choose, that it is her business and her business alone, and that men have no place in commentating on the choices a women makes with her body. To a certain degree that is all justifiable and true, but when a woman decides to have a ‘medical procedure’ it doesn’t only affect her, it affects her family, her mother, her father, her brothers, her sisters, her partner, these men and women are indirectly affected, but they are affected nonetheless. I know of women who have had abortions and carried on with their lives confident that they had made the right decision in their life at that particular time, some gave birth to children later in life, others weren’t unable to, and some regretted their decisions terribly. I also know of men, who travelled to Britain to accompany their partners to the abortion clinics, even though they weren’t in favour of the decision, but they believed it wasn’t their right to question a women’s right to choose what to do with their own bodies. I know men who only found out their partners had a ‘medical procedure’ after the fact, and I’m pretty sure I know of many more men, who never even knew that their partner, girlfriend or wife had a ‘medical procedure’ across the sea. Just like the Governments wording in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013, we must not say these terrible truths out loud, men shouldn’t interfere or have an opinion on whether or not their child is brought to full term they may be prospective fathers but they should not interfere in the decision of a woman, unborn children shouldn’t have a right to desire the right to live a fruitful and complete life, and women shouldn’t oppose other women who believe in the right to choose, and are the rights of prospective grandparents, aunts and uncles all irrelevant also?
Abortion is a societal issue that affects everyone it touches, some more harshly and devastatingly than others, some people can cope quite well afterwards, whilst some regret their decision, others believe it was in the best interest of everyone concerned. Whatever your opinion is, one thing that is clear is that this is primarily a women’s rights issue, but it is not solely the preserve of a woman to be affected by an abortion, it can have a devastating affect on partners and families also. The difficulty with the suicide provision is contained in the bill is that it is open to possible manipulation, however well intentioned. Even though three medical professionals must agree that the woman who presents herself for an abortion is suicidal, what medical practitioner is going to take the chance to state that a woman is not suicidal and subsequently be proved wrong, if that same woman then proceeds to take her own life. What medical practitioner is going to risk their career, future and livelihood to make this life and death decision? For generations we have exported abortion to Britian, but it wasn’t as simple as booking a clinic and a boat trip across the sea, in many cases women had to get a referral from their General Practitioner. Anecdotally, I am aware of several cases of pregnant women who visited their GP, and in his or her referral to the clinic they stated suicidal ideation or suicidal feelings as the reason that the pregnant woman was requesting a termination. This is part and parcel of the concerns of people who feel that the suicide provision in the bill has the potential to possibly to open up the floodgates to many women, young and otherwise, who feel this is the right temporary solution to what may end up in being permanent problem for the women, men and families involved.
Article by John J. O’Donovan ©
Full Draft Bill on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 –http://www.dohc.ie/publications/pdf/protection_life_pregnancy.pdf?direct=1
Section 9 on Risk of loss of life from suicide:
Risk of loss of life from suicide
9. (1) It shall be lawful to carry out a medical procedure in respect of a pregnant woman in
accordance with this section in the course of which, or as a result of which, an unborn
human life is ended where—
(a) the medical procedure is carried out by an obstetrician at an appropriate
(b) subject to section 19, three medical practitioners, having examined the pregnant
woman, have jointly certified in good faith that—
(i) there is a real and substantial risk of loss of the woman’s life by way of
(ii) in their reasonable opinion, that risk can only be averted by carrying out that
(2) Of the 3 medical practitioners referred to in subsection (1)(b)—
(a) one shall be an obstetrician who practises as such at an appropriate institution,
(b) one shall be a psychiatrist who practises as such at an appropriate institution, and
(c) one shall be a psychiatrist who practises as such—
(i) at an approved centre, or
(ii) for, or on behalf of, the Executive,
(3) Of the 2 psychiatrists referred to in subsection (2), at least one shall be a psychiatrist
who provides, or who has provided, mental health services to women in respect of
pregnancy, childbirth or post-partum care.
(4) If practicable, at least one of the medical practitioners referred to in subsection (1)(b)
shall, with the pregnant woman’s agreement, consult with the woman’s general
practitioner (if any) for the purposes of obtaining information in respect of the woman
from that general practitioner that may assist the medical practitioners in their
decision as to whether or not to make a section 9 certification in respect of the
(5) Subject to section 19, the certifying obstetrician shall—
(a) forward, or cause to be forwarded, the section 9 certification to an appropriate
(b) make such arrangements as may be necessary for the carrying out of the medical
procedure to which the section 9 certification relates at the appropriate