Weekly Roundup: Summary of the Oireachtas Hearings on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013

Welcome to another ARC Weekly Roundup, where each week our MediaWatch team highlights how abortion is discussed in the media at home and abroad. This week, we give you a Summary of the Oireachtas Hearings on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013

Summary of the Oireachtas Hearings on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013

The Oireachtas Health Committee began three days of hearings on the draft heads of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 on Friday 17th May. The coalition government have pledged to legislate for the X case following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in University Hospital Galway last year. If enacted, the Bill will legalise abortion where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, including the threat of suicide.

The journal.ie reported that Fianna Fail Leader Micheál Martin said he would not state publicly his party’s position on the forthcoming legislation until after the hearings were completed. (thejournal.ie)

The witness list was confined to legal and medical experts. In a statement, Committee Chairperson, Jerry Buttimer, thanked the many people who offered to come before the Committee. Adding that “Regrettably we cannot accommodate every request but we are grateful to those who made written statements.” Contributions were sought from interested members of the public. (rte) (Irish Times) However, as the Irish Independent reported, the committee refused requests to speak from lobby groups and women affected by abortion, including those who had terminations abroad because their unborn baby had a fatal birth defect. (Irish Independent)

Friday’s hearings focused on policy, medical issues and obstetrics. On Monday the committee heard from experts in the field of psychiatry (including perinatal) psychiatrists and those from other medical specialities. Tuesday concluded with presentations on medical ethics and constitutional law. Time was also set aside to allow TDs and Senators, who were committee members to make comments.  (rte) (Irish Times)

The Irish Times reported that Dr Reilly had made a tactical error one the first day of the hearings by leaving the chamber immediately after finishing his speech, an approach that went down poorly with some of his backbench colleagues in Fine Gael. (Irish Times)


Day 1- Medical Submissions

By the end of the first day of hearings, it was clear that many in the medical profession feel dramatic changes are needed. The Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists believe that abortion should be available in all government-approved hospitals in certain circumstances.  An editorial piece in the Irish Independent stated that by far the most controversial aspect of the legislation is that it will allow for abortion in cases where a woman is suicidal. (The Independent)

The draft legislation allows for a maximum of 14 days to pass before a decision is made if a woman appeals against a decision not to grant a termination, but the head of the Irish Medical Organisation said that this is too long. (thejournal.ie)

The Irish Medical Organisation told the committee that an obstetrician should not be required to determine the risk of suicide. This should be done by two psychiatrists in consultation with the woman’s GP, it said. The Irish Medical Council also said the certification of two psychiatrists would suffice. (Irish Examiner)

Saturday’s Irish Times focused on the fact that differences of opionion emerged between the masters of two Dublin maternity hospitals on the suicide provision in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill (Irish Times)

Sam Coulter Smith, master of the Rotunda Hospital said the proposed new abortion laws may lead to increased demand for terminations and warned that more women seeking a termination under the proposed legislation could heighten pressure on already stretched hospitals. (Belfast Telegraph) While welcoming the rest of the Bill, he said the suicide clause raised a number of issues. He poined out that psychiatrists had previously told the committee there was no evidence to show that abortion was a treatment for suicide. Therefore, in his opinion, this created an ethical dilemma for any obstetrician required to carry out a termination in such circumstances, particularly in the absence of any gestational time limit in the legislation. (Irish Times)

Paul Cullen reported in the Irish Times that for Dr. Rhona Mahony, master of the National Maternity Hospital, the Bill was about saving women’s lives.  Mary Regan, writing in the (Irish Examiner), higlighted the following points from Dr.Mahaony’s testimony:

Dr. Mahony said “women should be allowed terminations if there is a risk of dying by suicide — even without the Supreme Court ruling on the X case, which determined this to be constitutionally lawful. Suicide is death….We are legislating here for the risk of death. When you commit suicide, you die. This bill is not about legislating for suicidal intent in pregnancy. This bill is not about suicide, it is about the risk of a woman dying, whether that is mental or physical….Any legislators who wanted the suicide grounds removed should ask themselves if they were certain women would not die as a result. …Are we all absolutely certain that when a woman — who does not plan to be pregnant, who is so distressed by her pregnancy that she tells us she wants to kill herself — can we all sit here and say ‘I am absolutely certain she will not kill herself’? I can’t.”


Dr. Peter Boylan said in his submission to the oireachtas hearings that it was “bizarre and contradictory” to propose a woman be sentenced to 14 years in prison for accepting medical advice in this state and having a termination. (Irish Times)


Day 2  -Submissions from Psychiatrists and other medical specialists

The main focus of the second day of proceedings was on suicide and its inclusion in the legislation. Paul Cullen, writing in the Irish Times stated that regardless of whether you are in favour of or against the planned abortion legislation, it is difficult not to be concerned by the divisions between the professionals on its contents.  He went on to add that the divergence was most marked between staff working at the two big Dublin maternity centres: the National Maternity Hospital-Holles Street and the Rotunda. (Irish Times)

President of the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, perinatal psychiatrist, Dr Anthony McCarthy said that the Bill is about legislating for the very small but real possibility that sometimes a woman’s life can be saved by termination of her pregnancy. His colleague, consultant perinatal psychiatrist John Sheehan, said there was evidence to show that terminations could increase mental health problems among women. He added that while at face value the legislation seemed restrictive, it was not possible to say how it would operate in practice. He told the committe in other jurisdictions schemes that had seemed restrictive had turned out not to be. (rte)(Irish Examiner)

Professor Kevin Malone, UCD professor of psychiatry and co-founder of the charity Turn The Tide of Suicide, told the Oireachtas health committee, that by highlighting suicide the State could be seen as legitimising it, sending the wrong signal to young men who were most at risk of suicide. (Irish Times)

Founding member of Doctors for Choice ,Dr Peadar O’Grady, said imposing a requirement for three doctors to assess a suicidal pregnant woman would cause unnecessary delay. (Irish Times)

Dr Bernie McCabe, making a submission on behalf of Professor Patricia Casey, said recommending abortion in the absence of any scientific evidence was an abuse of the psychiatric profession by the State. (rte)

The strongest opposition to the legislation came from Dr Sean O Domhnaill, a HSE psychiatrist and director of the Life Institute He told the committee the Bill was not about protecting human life in pregnancy but was about legitimising abortion. (The Independent)

The lack of referenceto an age of consent and the overal restrictive nature of the legislation were also raised.  (rte) Chairman of the Mental Health Commission John Saunders noted a possible problem with appeals.Consultant cardiologist Dr. Kevin Walsh says it will mean some women with life-threatening health problems will not have to travel to the UK. (Newstalk)

Although the issue of allowing the threat of suicide as a ground for abortion dominated the day’s proceedings, the proposed legislation’s criminal sanctions were also discussed.(The Independent)


Day 3 – Legal Submissions

Dr Ruth Fletcher, a medical ethics expert, told the Health Committe on their final day of hearings that it would be harmful to adopt the proposed new maximum penalty of 14 years and legislators should at the very least consider reducing that term. Mary Minihan, writing in the Irish Times, reported that Dr. Fletcher beleived theproposed legislation did not do enough to meet the ethical obligation to value women’s lives, and referred to the “troubling mistrust” of women with suicidal ideation. Sunniva McDonagh SC said that for the first time the termination of pregnancy was being considered as the actual treatment for suicidal ideation. (rte)

Barrister Paul Brady said while it might be desirable, the Government did not have to legislate just because the Supreme Court said it should. This view was repeated by Professor William Binchy of Trinity College Dublin, who also stated that abortion legislation is incompatible with the core values of human rights. (Irish Times)

Brady insisted that the proposed legislation will make a major change to the law and create a basis in law for the ending of a child’s life. (Newstalk)

Dr Maria Cahill from the faculty of law at University College, Cork, said the Constitution was uncompromising in its defence of human life. Under the rules of statutory interpretation, Dr Cahill said it was difficult to see how the proposed legislation could be interpreted so as to prohibit late-term, full-term or even partial birth abortion.(The Independent)

In her editorial in The Independent, Dearbhail McDonald reported that retired judge Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, told the hearings that the floodgates will not open if the Government’s planned abortion bill is made law, because it is too restrictive. Most women will travel abroad for a termination rather than apply to secure a termination under the current Bill (The Independent)

Junior Minister for Primary Care Alex White laid out the official position by confirming that a woman with a late term pregnancy who was suicidal could get an early delivery – but not an abortion. (The Independent)

In his closing submission, Alex White assured committee members that each issue raised over the past three days would be examined from a policy perspective.  Rte reported that the majority of members said the hearings were very beneficial. (rte)

Jerry Buttimer says “it is a big ask” for the government to have abortion legislation enacted before the Dáil’s summer recess. Dr Reilly said he would rather see the Dáil sit for a few extra days before the summer recess, than put off the enactment of the new laws. (Irish Times)

The Abortion Rights Campaign joined with 11 other group of organisations in raising common points and reservations regarding Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill on Wednesday May 22nd (RTE)